On any given day there are few things funnier than rich, fat guys telling the poor how good the food is at their favourite restaurant. Still fewer things are more irritating if you happen to be poor and hungry. One of Robert Fulford’s recent National Post columns, in which readers were treated to one stuffy right-winger trying to make it look like another stuffy right-winger was actually a bleeding-heart socialist on the take constituted one of those few. In a single self-stabbing column, Fulford attempted to exonerate the Ontario Government’s let’s-throttle-the-arts funding policies while making his competitor—and replacement—at the rival Globe & Mail, David Macfarlane, look like both a fatuous poseur and the local heir to Karl Marx. Given Mr. Macfarlane’s predilection for ridiculous behaviors (such as showing people his wiener at Vancouver’s Wreck Beach and then making it the subject of an arts column in the Globe & Mail), the latter part of Fulford’s project was shooting fish in a barrel. But his arguments for the notion that the Harris government’s Visigoth arts policies aren’t poisonous are a little more, er, imaginative. Perhaps the thing most utterly exposed by Fulford’s column is how far afield he isn’t reading these days.
Any sensible person can tell you that the Ontario Conservatives under Mike Harris don’t like artists any more than they do poor people, uppity women, homos or immigrants with a notion that their recently-acquired human rights are something they ought to be able to put into practice. Fulford appears to believe that the fact that Ontario’s various arts communities haven’t died off like flies under the regime is a proof of the Triumph of Capitalism and, one supposes, Mr. Harris’ Common Sense Revolution.. In reality, it has more to do with the fact that Ontario is at the apogee (or just past it) of an economic upturn, which means that both consumers and corporations have had a few extra dollars to spare in recent years and that has made up for enough of the shortfall in funding to make it invisible for the time being. More importantly, the Feds are flush with cash for the first time in twenty years and they’ve stepped in.
One of Fulford’s more frivolous arguments for the invigorating effect of The Triumph meets Common Sense is the current publishing phenomenon in Canada that has seen about a dozen lucky, untracked novelists receiving as much as a quarter of the annual salary of an experienced typist in advances against royalties (i.e. $10 G) for their novels. Fulford himself couldn’t live more than about six weeks on the kind of money have received up front, but that’s not the quite the point. This situation that “No one ever dreamt of seeing” is in fact the side-effect of a Federal program within the film industry that is giving major tax credits to companies willing to develop Canadian properties for Movies of the Week. The effect on the publishing sector is likely a short-term one, and one that Fulford is already guilty of overplaying. When the Chapters mess shakes out and Heather Riesman divests the 23 bookstores she agreed to sell when the Feds let her take over the bookselling business in Canada, by closing the stores and returning their stock to the publishers, half of those publishers offering advances to the young novelists will be dead. One or two film companies will produce MOWs based on Canadian properties that never quite got to print, but there won’t be enough of them made to field a baseball team out of the enriched young novelists.
As for Fulford’s corroborating argument that Ontario is currently overrun with prize-winning writers, I note that he’s careful not to name any of them because he knows damned well that all, from Atwood and Ondaatje on down, have had at one time in their careers a faceful of support at the public trough Fulford has deemed old fashioned and obsolete, and that they’ll argue vociferously for the value of government subsidies to young writers.
So what is it that Fulford is really going on about here, anyway? Can Soulpepper, the Albert Schultz-run theatre company Fulford admits has been on the scene less than four years, be “The finest theatre company in the history of Toronto”? Or is Fulford blinded by Soulpepper’s repertoire of works by dead or elderly American or Euro playwrights and Schultz’s career credits (Street Legal, multiple hostings of Canadian television awards galas). Does the “delightful moment in the history” of the AGO that is the Ruebens exhibit constitute anything more than one of dozens of delightful moments the AGO has cooked up over the decades before Harris arrived, and does it signal much of anything beyond the Harris Tory conviction that the arts are meant to support the tourism industry, not to educate or pleasure the locals. Is Fulford’s attack on the defenseless Macfarlane anything more than the start of a campaign to get Fulford his old job at the Globe back, where he was much more comfortable than he is with the young Libertarian twits at the Post? Or is this evidence that he’s finally losing his stuff, piling straw-man arguments onto ones grounded in inaccurately ascribed evidence stuffed with ideologically cultivated exaggerations shoved up the back end of ad hominem arguments aimed at the Post’s entrepreneurial target demographic.
I’d have thought Fulford would be the sort of man who understands what happens when you try to kill a living organism. Whether it is a population of voles living in a meadow sprayed with herbicide, an ornamental orange tree left to shrivel in a bankrupt publishing house, or a generation of young, possibly overprivileged and effete novelists who’ve grown up with public funding for the arts, all living things try to reproduce when they’re threatened with extinction. The voles produce larger litters to compensate for the offspring born with two heads or none, the orange trees flood with blossoms before the janitor stops watering them, and the young novelists produce more novels that they hope might be commercially attractive. For a little while, there more voles scampering hither and thither in the withered vegetation, the sweet perfume of orange blossoms waft through the empty offices of the publishing houses, and there is an over-abundance of novels that read like bloated movie scripts. I’m not sure that old men who like to imagine they’re in synch with the Zeitgeist automatically start spouting bullshit to convince everyone that we ought to be grateful for such phenomena, but maybe that’s part of the package, too. It sure seems like what we’re getting from Robert Fulford these days.