Peter Worthington and the blurry divisions between left and right

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I'll miss Peter Worthington, Canada's archetypal right-wing journalist, who died this week at 86. I say that without irony or subtext. I'll just miss him. When we did public events together we were always positioned as left vs. right. But I couldn't conceal my delight at seeing him. CBC's Michael Enright, who hosted one panel, said: "Would you two stop acting like long-lost brothers?"

We'd written against each other before we met. I was specially irked by his impulse to meddle, through his connections at agencies like the RCMP security service. In retrospect, though, I'm not sure that's much different from what leftish writers like myself would call activism: putting your beliefs into practise. Worthington saw himself as an active Cold Warrior in that conflict's heyday.

But I was unready for his impishness, openness, wit and empathy. He struck me as someone who could as easily have been on the other side, or any side, depending on circumstances, and that includes, scarily, myself. We may not be as in control of our choices as we like to think.

That thought goes down more easily today, with the Cold War barely a memory and left-right divisions harder to define. Look at the poor NDP, trying to straddle a line that may no longer be there. I don't mean there aren't sides; there are, perhaps more so than ever, but their descriptions are in flux.

I've been reading anthropologist-economist David Graeber's new book, The Democracy Project, about the Occupy movement. He's an anarchist, and his priority is process, which he refers to as "horizontalism": there's no hierarchy, everyone has equal right to a say, leadership emerges fleetingly within democratic exchanges. In situations like that where process starts superceding content, ideological divisions like left vs. right also begin to appear less crucial.

Worthington himself was something of a horizontalist. He was wealthy and ideological but was also renowned, as the Toronto Sun's editor, for answering his own phone. It's more than that, though. The outreach felt genuine, not faux.

The ideology ran deep, too. When he co-created the Sun in 1971 as a far-right podium, he was well outside the mainstream. The rest -- CBC, the Star, Maclean's, the Southam chain -- certainly weren't left but liberal/Liberal fits them. After we did our first TV show together, in the 1980s, I drove him somewhere and asked if he'd ever had doubts about his politics. It was a pensive, sunsetting moment. He said there'd been a time in the 1960s: he hadn't truly doubted but felt a bit besieged by the zeitgeist -- the music, culture, the oppositional rhetoric. As if he might've boarded the wrong train as far as being in tune with his times. Not that he'd have considered switching. It can be fun, with a certain personality, to be in the minority.

I can't help thinking that in the (fading) light of this week's Duffy debacle. Mike Duffy is a rightist of convenience. He worked for CBC in the 1970s and '80s. Then in 1988, at the peak of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney years, switched to CTV. He even wrote weekly columns for Worthington's Sun that read like Tory press releases. It was typical right-wing populism: you intonate as if you're challenging The Man but any banker would be comfy with your actual ideas.

Duffy was already whinging about a Senate appointment, though the Chrétien era delayed that. There's no surprise in his recent actions. The mystery is why the Harper people are so desperate to hang onto him that they reached for the wad in their back pocket and peeled off $90,000 to keep him happy. Worthington, on the other hand, would've stuck with his stance even if he'd been driven into the catacombs for it. Luckily, given his lifestyle preferences, that wasn't required.

The last TV thing we did together was just before my first (and only) kid was born. I was jittery and talked too much, rudely overriding the other panellists on Arlene Bynon's program. At the end of the hour, Peter leaned back, patted me affably on the back and said: "I'd like to thank Rick for having us all on his show today." Who wouldn't miss a guy like that?

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Matt MacGillivray/flickr

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