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Defending Clarkson and Saul

I don’t often write in defense of anyone with power and privilege, and ceremonial behaviors make me itchy. But the Governor-Generalship of Adrienne Clarkson has to be judged a wildly successful enterprise for Canada by virtually any standards except those of myopic corporate accountants who’d like to see anyone associated with government asking them for permission before going to the washroom or across the street to pick up some Timbits at Tim Hortons.

Clarkson and her partner John Ralston Saul have gotten around during her mandate, visiting innumerable communities across the country—particularly in the north—and they’ve done it with grace and elan. They do the necessary imitations of statues that every Governor General must, and when asked to speak, they’ve been clear and articulate about how great a country we have. That’s been a neglected element of the Governor General’s role, and they’ve done it better than any Governor General in living memory. They’ve also made a few heavily-publicized offshore trips, always to northern countries, and here you get the sense that they were filling a diplomatic deficit for Jean Chretien, who was, along with his virtues, fairly lazy about these sorts of handshake jamborees. To his credit, he seemed to have figured out early that Clarkson and Saul were more reliable representatives of Canada’s interests than the Manley and Martin-organized troops of slew-footed business dorks who were as likely to get caught trying to pick up hookers or be overheard at banquets referring to their offshore hosts as foreign cocksuckers as they were to be successful in, as the argot has it, “forging bilateral trade relations”.

I’m not sure why it is arrogant when a governor general travels the country listening to Canadians and making them feel some small pride in who and where they are. And if it is extravagant to be taking a group of social—as opposed to financial—thinkers to other northern countries to see what points of conversion exist between them and us, and, where possible, to talk about what better ones might be established, then it’s a less distasteful strain of extravagance than, say, Hydro One CEO Eleanor Clitheroe’s pension deal, or the hundred and some million dollars Paul Martin’s companies got without even the obligation to sail under Canadian flags or employ Canadian sailors. Similarly, how northern European countries have managed to survive and thrive ought to be, as John Fraser inferred in his over-subtle but accurate defense of Clarkson, of economic as well as political and social interest.

The original attack on Clarkson was launched in Parliament, by the John Williams-chaired Public Accounts Committee. This was a fairly minor committee (how else would it end up with a Canadian Alliance member chairing it) until George Radwanski fell into its lap. It didn’t take the committee’s cynical members long to figure out that it was onto a good thing: Civil servant baiting is a favoured activity at CanWest Global, and the PAC has used it to get more media play than it deserves. The committee also discovered that it was good politics to nickel-&-dime the budget of absolutely anyone and Clarkson was an obvious target. For the right-wing committee chair, and for the republican wannabe Liberals on the committee, who no doubt thought it would please the incoming Prime Minister, she must have looked pretty inviting.

It’s been getting very clear, meanwhile, that Paul Martin Jr. really does have an unreasoning hatred for Jean Chretien and that this may extend to everything and everyone associated with him, including the Governor General Chretien appointed. Martin has never been very eager to rush to the aid of foundering ships unless they have CSL on the funnels, and so it was hardly a surprise when he put an end to the Governor General’s cultural diplomacy the moment he took office. It’s still not clear whether this is merely the micromanaging for which he’s well publicized, or if it’s because he sees Clarkson as a Chretien ally and is looking for ways to sack or muzzle her.

This is foolish of him, given his evident lack of public relations instincts. Allowing himself to be photographed gazing up at George W. Bush like an eager spaniel during his first international outing was pretty convincing proof of that, and further indications that he should be confined to the board-room and out of the public eye flood in from virtually every appearance he makes. He should let Clarkson finish her term, because she’s liable to give his regime the only dignity it’ll have, along with some much needed evidence that he intends to govern the country on behalf of its citizens, not the WTO.

The enthusiasm with which the right-wingers among Canada’s media moved in on Clarkson and Saul has been even more depressing than the behavior of grandstanding politicians. Things had been picking up below the byline level since before Chretien left office, but Margaret Wente’s attack in the Globe a few weeks back signified that the alpha dogs were baring their fangs.

Wente’s frothing-at-the-mouth column probably had something to do with her own disappointment at not being the designated menopause columnist for the New York Times instead of what she is: the Canadian spokesperson for Volvo-driving middle-aged women who live in Rosedale and other enclaves of the grinning wealthy. It was, in other words, as much a tirade against Canada as against Clarkson.

Still, the naked rancour of the attack was startling. Wente is often both penetrating and witty when she has some idiotic excess of the social democratic remnant in the crosshairs. Here she sounded like something between a corporate hatchetman and Elsie Wayne, trotting out Calvinist platitude piled atop Reform Party cliché mixed with chartered bank slogans to illustrate Clarkson and Saul’s alleged excesses. She even resorted, indirectly, to “the interests of taxpayers”, a phrase that has become corporate code for “suckers”—those who are easily distracted into blaming governments while the corporations are hoovering their wallets and gutting the institutions that support the middle classes, who pay most of the taxes in this country. An otherwise intelligent media columnist like Wente resorting to this sort of self-demeaning nonsense is shameful, as was her small-minded contempt toward Clarkson’s efforts to make Canadians more aware of how well this country does work.

As Clarkson has subsequently pointed out in a CBC interview with Anna-Maria Tremonte, she was given a budget for her work by cabinet, and she hasn’t exceeded it, so what’s the problem?
The problem may be that she’s given Canadian nationalism a new and elevated dignity. Part of the hostility toward her also resides with Saul, who is a genuine intellectual force on the international scene and the most civil detractor of Globalist wonders on the circuit. He’s been compiling a detailed body of ideas to combat the incoming governor-generalship of the WTO and understands what a great country this is as well as anyone. Over the past several years he’s been articulating, in increasingly clear terms, the value of Canadian civilities and institutions, suggesting how much better Canada could be if its governments had the confidence to play out, with more enthusiasm, our logical role as a "middle power," as Romeo D’Allaire recently described us. He’s also become indirectly vocal about the dangers of playing lapdog to the U.S. foreign and economic policy.

Saul’s latest move, a long lead article in Harpers that announces that Globalism is collapsing, really got the big media dogs barking along their kennel fences. The Globe and Mail went so far as to rebuke him with an unsigned lead editorial, "His Excellency’s Drivel," that accused Saul of being “Noam Chomsky in a morning suit” and delivered a stream of adjectives worthy of Conrad Black at his fulminating worst. Hilariously, the editorial then launched into a passionate defense of “economic liberalism” (aka corporate capitalism), which it supposes has been in conscious and continuous ascendance throughout the last century. The editorial conveniently underplays the era between 1930 and 1945 when cooperation between corporations and government was called fascism, and the 25 years after that while corporate captains hid under their desks hoping everyone would forget.

“…The proper response…” the editorialist writes, “is not to write a premature obituary for liberalism. Rather, it is to continue to work toward a prosperous, peaceful global community.” It then goes on to suggest that the means to these ends is “freer trade, easier movement for workers, greater transparency in government and the spread of democratic institutions”—all without noting that none of these have been the goals of the globalists. Instead, they’ve been working toward freer capital transfers, easier movement of managerial personel, more control over sovereign governments through trade agreements and in the wake of 9-11, the hamstringing of democratic institutions in the name of what is ultimately not much more that fiscal security for the oil industry. The slightly scary subtext of the editorial is the conflation of “liberalism” with “globalism”. Let’s hope the Liberal party’s new flacks weren’t listening, because they’re liable to take it literally. They’ve already altered the maple leaf the party stole from the Canadian flag to one that looks like something that ought to appear on a cereal box.

Around the same time, the normally sensible Robert Fulford, the last journalist left at the National Post who doesn’t automatically relate every news event to Israeli foreign policy, offered up a shoe polish-smeared attempt to please his masters by administering a lesson in argumentative logic-chopping—while accusing Saul of doing the same thing.

Fulford was correct in suggesting that Saul’s essay contained more than a few rhetorical tricks. But just as the sputtering Globe editorial failed to do so, Fulford was also unwilling to engage Saul’s main points, which were that Globalism’s flaws as an encompassing political system are starting to show, and that the quasi-religious rhetoric with which it proselytizes itself as an evolutionary inevitability is starting to contradict the evidence. What may have most infuriated the detractors was Saul’s implicit suggestion that the corporatists are in the same historical position that social democrats were in by the mid-1970s when their ascendancy began to wane and the managers were running afoul of the pragmatics of operating the world they’d remade. All Saul really did was point out that the wheel appears to be turning, as it has in the past.

Saul’s arguments, in this essay as elsewhere, admittedly have an Spenglerian ellipticalness to them that leaves him open to “what about this?” nit-picking. That’s a problem with big-picture thinking: it’s a fastball up in the zone, and it’s hard to connect with without a level swing.

In a better world, everyone–Martinites, corporatists, the various defenders of the faith within the corporate media and the few leftist intellectuals who can stay awake after 8 P.M.–should be grateful that Saul is arguing on behalf of Canadian civilities and for democracy in general. For those on the right side of the political spectrum, he provides an invitation to resharpen their weapons, which have been getting pretty dull from slicing through all that gravy. Civility and democracy may be a small clip on profits, but in a world filled with fanatics with automatic rifles, they’re instruments that the globalists ought to be embracing as the least of many evils and the only ones that offer any long-term protection for their investment portfolios. For those on the left, Saul is welcome relief from the program-by-program defense of the doomed status quo.

Clarkson, meanwhile, should be thanked for turning the governor-generalship back into a meaningful and inclusive institution, and for being among the most cost-efficient agencies the Federal government has. She’s done a better job helping Canadians to understand themselves and the country they live in than the information programs of the Federal and provincial governments around the country combined. She’s done it at a tiny fraction of the cost, and she hasn’t resorted to giving ad agencies mad money at the back door to do it.

1987 w. April 8, 2004

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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