Black and Whyte and Left and Right

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My own view of Conrad Black is that he was never the bloated embodiment of capitalism that former Ontario premier Bob Rae once called him. That was a persona, cleverly constructed to conceal his real self: a romantic ideologue, or ideological romantic - at any rate, both romantic and ideologue - a sheer nineteenth-century sensibility.

If you want proof, follow the money. Look where he put it. Early on, he took a stash from Argus Corporation arising from various sources and dumped it all into ... newspapers! Not the coolest investment, but romantic: ink-stained, stop the presses, Citizen Kane. Sheer Ben Hecht and The Front Page. He was no twenty-first-century media guy, no convergence for him. And papers are by far the most ideologically expansive modern media. Think of the agonized talk at the National Post about whether they'll lose their souls with Conrad gone: Try and picture the same at any broadcaster, including the CBC. They'd have to look up the words!

What romantic quest did he undertake? To save the beautiful Canadian people from the clutches of left-liberalism and the Liberal Party. If they didn't want to be there, why were they? Because they had been bewitched by the left-liberal media, like the CBC and (it still makes me gag) The Globe and Mail. So he mounted the National Post, with his trusty squire, editor Ken Whyte, and a retinue of Southam papers. Just raise the noble banner on his lance, and surely the masses would flow to him.

But they didn't. To the extent his papers changed the agenda in areas such as tax cuts, it was politicians, including Liberals, who saluted, not the people. Canadian political culture, according to polls, including electoral ones, is still what you'd call social democratic - with small caps, and a big dose of skepticism.

Now nothing so fulfills a true romantic like having his deepest desire thwarted. And so Sir Conrad decamps, in full, lingering cry: "I'm leaving. I said I'm leaving. Now. I'm at the door. Goodbye. Goodb-"

I want to say how truly I empathize, as someone sort of left. Forever the Canadian Left has claimed the masses were being mind-napped by our right-wing media, including The Globe and the CBC. If we had only one major paper, they would surely flock to us, voting for the New Democratic Party or Communist or Green. And just because Conrad Black tested the thesis from the Right, and it failed, doesn't mean it might not hold if tested from the Left.

Still, it makes you think about the pertinence of Left and Right as now used. In The Vestibule of Hell, Canadian polymath Hugh Graham rails against the left-right schema we have. He says it comes from an accidental seating arrangement during the French Revolution, it's overly ideological and rationalistic and fails to meet real political needs in our society, while under it Left and Right have more in common with each other than with most folks out there. He also speculates on the rich, long history of dualism: Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, sacred and profane, good and evil, Coke and Pepsi. I find this part fascinating. I mean, why divide into two, and not three, four or many? He also locates the current version of Right and Left as one possibility among many over the centuries (the right versus the left hand of God, etc.).

What other versions of left-right could you have today that make more sense? How about power versus powerlessness? I'd claim power is almost entirely corporate now, while potential countervails such as labour, feminism or environmentalism barely register - though that could change in the future as it has in the past. But you could lay it out differently.

Now think about Conrad Black's sale of the Post to the Aspers in this light. At a newsroom meeting, Leonard Asper told Posties, "The fact is there's ideologically not any difference that I've detected," between old and new owners. This makes sense if you think of left and right as being mainly about power, not ideology. In this way, the Aspers may understand politics better than Conrad Black. Poor Conrad thought it was a debate about big philosophical principles. Now think about the Liberal Party. The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson moans about how "one party so totally dominates a country as the Liberals do Canada." That may be, but only because the Liberals have totally acceded to (corporate) power, just like the Mulroney Tories before them. The Alliance and the Tories are having a hard time uniting the Right because the Liberals have already united it (in the sense of power) merely by signing up with it.

What was the old Post's finest hour? It came when David Asper wrote an op-ed attack on the paper's own treatment of Jean Chrétien. Their editorial reply was feisty, taut, even defiant. What lent it eloquence and credibility wasn't the right-wing ideology but the fact of standing up to the power of their new boss. When they were merely reproducing the views of their old lord and owner, they never looked half as good.

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