Monthly Archives: August 2011

Quote of the Day: Layton and Harper


Jack Layton zings Harper during the leaders’ debate in April: “I don’t know why we need so many new prisons when the crooks seem happy enough in the Senate.” (Sorry that this video includes the uploader’s spliced-in two second punchline at the end.)

Over at the Dish, Canadians continue to write in about the passing of Jack Layton. This reader articulates what many no doubt fear:

I frequently joke with my American colleagues and friends that they’d be better off with a parliamentary system. “At least then the party in power could get something done instead of this consistent gridlock,” I’d say. Well, I fear that those words will haunt me now with Layton’s passing. The Conservative PM, Stephen Harper, will now face a parliament where none of the opposition parties have a leader – a situation unprecedented in Canadian history.  An unfailing political opportunist, he will not let this one pass without exploiting it to the fullest.  Harper has been hell bent on moving Canada to the right, through undercutting funding to the opposition parties, recasting the entitlement structure that funnels money from richer regions (the ones his party overwhelmingly represents) to poorer (the ones the current opposition parties overwhelmingly represent), even returning “royal” to the names of the branches of the military, to name but a few examples.

What I suspect I and many other Canadians are reeling from is not only the passing of a truly remarkable Canadian, but the dread that our nation may be on the verge of a change we don’t want and that will irreparably damage the character of our country.

We lost him when we needed him most.

Quote of the Day: “It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him such a remarkable person”

The national mourning for Jack Layton has caught the attention of the foreign blogosphere. A Quebecer wrote in to Andrew Sullivan today with a heartfelt explanation (below) of Layton’s improbable appeal in Quebec. Layton’s political accomplishment is a singular one in Canadian history and may have realigned the Canadian electoral landscape for a long time to come. This is something the Conservatives really need to worry about, and their response will not likely rise above the debased standard they have set for slander and intimidation. Layton demonstrates what a decent person can bring to an otherwise toxic political environment. Like the old school leftists, he was a happy warrior with an antiquated notion that politicians should serve the interests of people instead of corporations.

First of all, a caveat: I’m a French-speaking Quebecer and it’s the first time I write a political comment in English. So I want to apologize in advance for the incoming grammar and syntax errors and gallicisms. (Oh, and another one: I didn’t vote for the guy. I’m not a party hack either; I’m an independent.)

There’s a huge something left unsaid in the passing of Jack Layton, either in your reader commentary or Mr. Horgan’s. It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him so remarkable as a person. This man was what we call in Quebec a “maudit anglais” – a damn Englishman. A scion of one of the great colonial families that ruled Canada from the Golden Square Mile in Montreal, whose forebears were ministers for the Conservative Party. He became a leftist in the ’70s and surged as the leader of the NDP (the Canadian version of the Labour) in the last decade. In the last election he gave the NDP its best results ever AND was able to beat the nationalist Bloc Quebecois on its own turf. He ended the career of the most popular politicians in Quebec, Gilles Duceppe, son of the great Quebecer actor Jean Duceppe. He broke the back of the Liberal Party (which was still called the Natural Ruling Party of Canada three years ago).

This is awesome. This is incredible.

The political pundits in Canada were still wrapping their head around this when Jack Layton passed away. The only way I could explain that is by offering two weak analogies: imagine in the UK a charismatic Protestant defeating Gerry Adams and winning almost the Catholic ridings in Northern Ireland PLUS giving the Labour such a beating that it would fade in third party status. Or imagine a Castillan becoming the popular leader of the Basques. It doesn’t make sense!

In all the history of Canada, Quebecers NEVER gave a majority of their votes to an  ethnic English party leader (and a Protestant to boot, even if religion doesn’t hold much sway anymore in Quebec politics). Never. Irish, Scots – rarely. English, ha! People say that politics are civil in Canada. They don’t know Quebec, Layton_Parliament-highreswhere the toxicity level is quite high and identity politics and class warfare are part of the game (it’s not Arizona, but frequently things are said here that would give the creeps to many pundits).

But the guy had this super smile, and said things like “When I’m Prime Minister, I’ll hold China accountable for its treatment of Tibet” with a willful look. And people tended to believe him because he got results, however seemingly impossible the objectives. He also had dignitas without unnecessary gravitas.

So this idealist (quixotic?) bloke from uptown, who speaks a hesitant French, with a moustache and a cane, changes the face of politics in the spring and dies by the summer, leaving us with a dream of purpose and appealing to our better selves. And leaving the left decapitated in front of the most conservative and ideological government Canada ever had.

I’m still shocked.

I tried all day to find an historical character to give a reference to a stranger to Canada. Perhaps a mix of Wilberforce and Zola, with a touch of RFK? A Gracchus without the anger? A Nick Clegg with a spine? Al Gore for the principles but without the stiffness, Ted Kennedy for the political acumen but without the sleaziness, likeable like Joe Biden but with speech discipline (for lack of a better word) and facial hair.

I hope this gives some perspective on this remarkable man.

(Drawing by Colin White)

Jack Layton 1950-2011

Three and a half months ago Jack Layton led the NDP to become the Leader of the Official Opposition, something that had eluded all of his predecessors, as well as all of his predecessors’ predecessors in the old CCF.

There are others who can speak more knowledgeably about his accomplishments and legacy, but two recent events stand out. The first is that he survived a last ditch smear by Conservative house organ the Toronto Sun a couple of days before the election. Unlike Michael Ignatieff, who was gored by years of Conservative slander, Layton was already well-known and respected by voters and he walked away without a scratch. It is a good measure of the trust and credibility he had earned through many years of public service.

The other was unexpected and came as a pleasant surprise. On Friday I happened to catch the CTV News report on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s testimony before the House finance committee. Flaherty delivered up talking points mush: the government of Canada is committed to lowering the deficit despite the need for government spending to create jobs and security because, well, just look at Europe, they have deficits too and they’re in big trouble. I know I looked for the remote at that point because the analogy is ridiculous, like comparing beavers and boulliabasse. However, the report also included a clip that, if you’d blinked, you’d’ve missed it: a young newly-elected NDP MP on the committee, when his turn came, responded to Flaherty, “Canada is not Europe, and the minister knows that.” The expression on Flaherty’s face made it clear that he isn’t used to being addressed that way.

It may be that a large part of Layton’s legacy is the unprecedented election of so many young members of parliament. They represent the generation that will have to clean up after people like Flaherty finally leave town. It’s very reassuring to know that some of them already have a jump on the situation, and we can thank Jack Layton for that.

From the letter written on his deathbed on Saturday:

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

Tar Sands Protest in Washington

Scores of people have been arrested at a protest in front of the White House against further development of Alberta’s tar sands, specifically a pipeline to transport more of the toxic product into the U.S. Time has a story here.

Canadians may not see themselves this way, but we now rank among the world’s worst environmental villains, thanks primarily to the Harper government abrogating its responsibilities under the Kyoto Accord: instead of being 6% below 1990 CO2 emissions as our treaty obligations require, we are currently almost 30% above them. Now Harper is aggressively pursuing his promise to make Canada an “energy superpower” — that is, to make Alberta an energy superpower — by escalating production of the world’s filthiest oil from the tar sands. Every day, somewhere in the world, there is a protest going on outside a Canadian consulate or embassy to protest tar sands development. Canadians may have become irresponsibly complacent about our good standing in the world as peaceful, reliable, and always honest brokers. Most of that reputation has been squandered in just the last few years. Per capita, we are in the top three of worst carbon polluters in the world. In terms of gross tonnage, we are always in the top ten — and we have by far the smallest population compared to the other nine. Villains is not a bad way to describe us.

Just how dangerous are the tar sands? James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institue says that if the development of the tar sands continues, then it means “game over for the climate.” (An interview with Hansen published today here.)

The underlying social problem appears to be primarily a generational one. The needs and expectations of the Baby Boomers define just about every social issue, and they undeniably drive the political agenda because they are such a large cohort and they vote in large numbers. However, their grandchildren, commonly known as the Millennials, seem to have a very different set of expectations, and they certainly will have to address the mess they are about to inherit. The triumphalism of North American “conservatism” is a mug’s game, and on some level “conservatives” must know that. Once the Boomers are gone, so goes the grasping panic that sustains our consumer society, which Baby Boomers seem to regard as a cradle-to-grave entitlement. One way or another such a society is doomed because it is not sustainable: we don’t have the resources, which are finite and are quickly being exhausted, and the effects upon the environment are catastrophic. With any luck at all, the Millennials will embrace the prospect of the change that must come rather than simply be victimized by the environmental and social disasters that will inevitably make change necessary. The very near future, therefore, is not the Conservative Party of Canada. It is much more likely the New Democratic Party (see Quebec) and the Green Party. The only prevailing issue is how much more political, economic, social and environmental damage the Conservatives and their American siblings the Republicans can inflict before they are done. Indications are that there is no limit to the damage they are willing to inflict.

Frye, as we’ve seen, includes care for the environment as a manifestation of primary concern. Here he is in “Canada: New World without Revolution” expressing an attitude that may well articulate the outlook of those who would have been his great-grandchildren:

Ecology, the sense of the need for conserving natural resources, is not a matter of letting the environment go back to the wilderness, but of finding some kind of working balance between man and nature founded on a respect for nature and its inner economies.  As part of natural human ecology, of conserving not only our natural but our cultural and imaginative resources.  Again, this is not simply a matter of leaving alone everything that is old: it is a way of life that grows out of a sense of balance between our present and our past.  In relation to the natural environment, there are two kinds of people: those who think that nature is simply there to be used by man, and those who realize that man is himself a part of nature, and will destroy himself if he destroys it.  In relation to time and human history, there are also two kinds of people: those who think that the past is dead, and those who realize that the past is still alive in us.  A dead past left to bury its dead ends in a dead present, a society of sleepwalkers, and a society without a memory is as senile as an individual in the same plight.  (CW 12, 441)

Quote of the Day: “Financial intermediation run amok”

Nouriel Roubini, the economist who correctly predicted years in advance the collapse of the financial market and was roundly mocked for it by Wall Street shills, considers Marx’s prediction that capitalism will collapse on itself:

Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proved wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality, and reduces final demand.

I have just read Francis Wheen’s Das Kapital: A Biography (excerpt here), which details the decades long development of Marx’s life’s work (most especially its nuanced literary dimension which is ignored by hardline ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum), as well as its demonic afterlife as the Bible of Marxist-Leninism. It’s difficult to ignore while reading the book that Marx’s critique of capitalism can still be regarded as prophetic. His account of how capital must ultimately be hoarded by a plutocratic elite remains relevant.

Frye consistently cited Marx as one of those nineteenth century thinkers who upended the traditional mythological conception of social authority. A typical example:

[I]f we look at the thinkers who have permanently changed the shape of human thought, such as Darwin, Marx, Freud, or Einstein, we find, naturally, that their books are complex and difficult and require years of study. Yet the central themes of their work are massive simplicity. Evolution, class struggle, the subconscious mind, are all things that have been staring mankind in the face for centuries. It’s the ability to see what’s straight in front of his nose that marks the thinker of first-rate importance. (CW 11, 271-2)

Frye on Fundamentalism: “God has been replaced by the devil”


Frye’s final posthumously-published work, The Double Vision, is remarkably perceptive on the rise of religious fundamentalism and its potential dangers. A decade ago the overwhelming concern on the American scene was Islamic fundamentalism, or “Islamism,” as it came to be known. In remarkably short order (thanks to the presence of George W. Bush in the White House, setting a standard for incompetence, intellectual dullness, and a Christian agenda in purely secular matters of governance), we have seen the rise of a toxic Christianism in American politics represented by at least two current Republican candidates for the presidency, Rick Perry of Texas, who as governor oversaw the execution of a man who was probably innocent to make some kind of point, and Michelle Bachmann, who, like Sarah Palin, is a serial liar and demagogic provocateur. Perry and Bachmann appear to be not just Christianists but “Dominionists” who believe that American government should function exclusively according to “Biblical” principles — a manifestation of what Frye in The Double Vision and elsewhere calls “pseudo-literalism.” Here he is calling our current events in the air:

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always mean that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of literalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less assuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Muslim world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave the order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is still there. (CW 4, 177-8)

That potential twenty years after Frye characterized it is now much closer to being an actuality. In the Republican Party, it is already a prevailing element in its political ideology — if it can even still be called that. This kind of noxious belief is dangerous because it becomes more difficult to curb the more it spreads. When we see how far it has advanced in just a few years, it is cause for concern. Even Canada’s prime minister has links to American-style fundamentalism that divides the world not into voters with different political views but into sheep and goats. This is why religion has no place in politics. It breeds not just intolerance but contempt for whole segments of the population by public servants who are supposed to serve the whole of society and not just the portions of it they have decided in advance are “saved.”

UPDATE: More on false literalism here; on Rick Perry here; on Michelle Bachmann’s insistence on repeating lies even when they’ve been exposed as lies here.

Frye on McLuhan Roundup

The Frye on McLuhan thread has been a good one. You can review it in the Marshall McLuhan Category. The collection of Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works is worth reading through, particularly as it provides insight into the way Frye worked through any issue that interested him.

There is McLuhan blog you might want to check out: The McLuhan Galaxy. They have also just discovered us and reposted the Frye on McLuhan compilation.

This website’s second anniversary is on the 18th. We’ll begin our third year with a refurbished library and journal. We’ll have that rolled out for September.

I’ll be posting if something interesting crosses my path. Otherwise I’ll be working behind the scenes. And, of course, I will always be looking for input from you. Our email address is

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan: A Comprehensive Compilation

Of the twenty-nine volumes of Frye’s Collected Works, there are references to McLuhan in twenty-three of them, from his 1949 diary to the late notebooks of the 1980s and one of his last interviews in November 1990. Here they are.

(This item will be posted in the library once we have our new PDF format up and running.)


From the 1949 diary:

Norma Arnett came up to me last night & wanted to know why a poem she (and I remember to some extent) thought was good had not been considered even for honourable mention in the Varsity contest. . . I said the judge was just plain wrong (I think it was McLuhan, so it’s a reasonable enough assumption). (CW 8, 94)

Marshall McLuhan went after me [regarding a paper on Bacon’s essays] with talk about essences & so on–Helen Garrett reported back from Jack that he’d said he was out to get me. He didn’t quite, though a stranger would have been startled by his tone. Actually, I imagine he agreed with a fair amount of the paper, though he didn’t say so when I went home with him. . . McLuhan again on his anti-English line–I think Jack Garrett is right in regarding it as a phobia. (CW 8, 143)

McLuhan did say something after all yesterday, about Germans. Said when a German met another human being it was like a root meeting a stone: he had to warp & twist himself into the most extraordinary convolutions to get around to the unpleasant fact of someone else’s existence. (CW 8, 145)

McLuhan’s Forum article [“Color-bar of BBC English”] suggests that he suffered abominably from the kind of self-consciousness he denies. (CW 8, 168)

Went for lunch with McLuhan and Ned [Pratt]. . . McLuhan brought up the subject about his magazine [about media communications] again. (CW 8, 209)


Continue reading

Frye on McLuhan: An Overview

Wednesday I’ll be posting the compilation of Frye’s references to Marshall McLuhan that appear in the Collected Works.

I want to make a few observations here, which I don’t intend to be a definitive. I will be writing a longer paper to provide a broader perspective and a more detailed account. However, I think the following points can be responsibly made.

First, Frye’s references to McLuhan require 20,000 words to render them, suggesting that he read and thought about McLuhan’s work extensively. He certainly referred to it in his published work wherever the situation allowed. His private notebooks likewise suggest deep engagement, although with an added and characteristic tartness (“global village my ass”; “that blithering nonsense ‘the medium is the message'”).

Second, his observations are as consistent as his inquiry is thorough. There are more than forty years worth of references here, and they are remarkably free of any notable contradiction.

Third, Frye’s critical assessment of the core elements of McLuhan’s thought reveals that they are unacceptable to him. On the other hand, Frye’s published references to isolated aspects of McLuhan’s work tend to be generous and are regularly cited to make a larger point. Although Frye is careful to distinguish McLuhan from what he at one point calls the “nitwitted McLuhanism” of the 1960s, his frank critique of McLuhan’s work as a whole stands.

Finally, the elements of McLuhan’s thought Frye is most critical of are also those most familiar to general readers, including his formulations regarding “the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and the linearity of print versus the simultaneity of electronic media. It is the last notion especially that Frye believes compromised McLuhan’s work, and he returns to it on a number of occasions.

Below is a small but representative selection of quotes that captures some of this.

Continue reading