Moses Goes to the Mountain

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"There was a time in this fair land ..."
Gordon Lightfoot

I told someone I was at the Couchiching conference on public affairs last weekend and she said, "I always picture people like Eric Kierans there. People who care about public policy."

There was a time when Couch (pronounced Cooch) was a real force. That's why folks who never went have a picture of it. Each summer on a lake near Orillia, people came. There were often cabinet ministers, high-level civil servants, academics, journalists, figures from what are now known as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and concerned citizens. They'd discuss a topic: health in Canada; science in Canada; Canada and the Americas. Speeches were followed by lineups at the mike for questions that also often amounted to speeches, preferably witty. It was civilized and mainstream, a Canadian cultural artifact, like the Stanley Cup.

What did it represent? The belief, I'd say, that there is an important thing called the public realm, which is best served by discussion and debate among well-informed people devoted to the "public good" more than their own advancement - even if that's a bit elitist, which accounted for a certain stuffy earnestness. In the past, Canadian society reinforced this image. Most papers ran daily dispatches on who said what. CBC Radio broadcast it "gavel to gavel."

Couch still gets its quota of cabinet ministers (Pierre Pettigrew) and former ministers (Warren Allmand), former deputies (Sylvia and Bernard Ostry, Stanley Hartt), columnists, and even an ex-prime minister (Kim Campbell). But coverage is spotty and there's a sense Couch is running on fumes. How come? Well, times change or, as retired CBC producer Eric Koch said, "The Zeitgeist is always the thing." It was a moment of Koch on Couch.

What kind of gabfest captures the Zeitgeist today? Take IdeaCity, an event run by Moses Znaimer of Citytv and its multifarious brood. He gathers sixty thinkers for "brain gymnastics" on a stage in Toronto. He sits in a comfy chair and invites each in turn to talk off the cuff. They are told to use no notes and, above all, don't read. Moses sees himself in endless combat with the old world of print on behalf of The Visual. But many speakers tend to fall back on their shtick, which doesn't get developed since there are no questions or debate. People do talk about ideas at a cocktail event later but, as one speaker said, "It's a party so you're walking around with this dumb-ass grin frozen on your face, screaming to be heard."

IdeaCity's process is supposed to throw off intellectual sparks. Jazz improv is its model. Yet, at its core is absence of dialogue. The deep premise is that creativity is a solo activity of solitary geniuses. It's not so far from what you get on City's Speakers Corner, a plebeian version where folks put in a coin and spout their thoughts to a camera. In neither case is there any interaction with others who could help develop those thoughts. What's really odd is how much this resembles the process of writing books: lonely and individualized; whereas fusty old Couch has a far more communal, you could even say oral, premise to it.

Moses Znaimer materialized last week at Couch on a panel about globalization and cultural diversity. The others dutifully spoke or read their lines, then came Moses. He nodded, the lights went down and up came a screeching promo for his TV stations. The lights came back and the MC called a coffee break.

Afterward, Moses was hell to try to draw into discussion, like an embodiment of his commitment to the visual. The audience grew fascinated with whether he'd speak at all. A grad student from Carleton asked what youth could do to abet diversity in the future. It was a tad inconvenient since panelists had suggested young people were either vapid (publisher Doug Gibson) or had really short attention spans (à la the City promo). Moses rather glaringly declined to respond and the others recoiled, too, as if no one wanted to look less cool than him. She slunk back to her seat. She said she felt like she was underwater.

Eventually, Moses lightened up and joined in. Like many people who adopt a sphinx-like mien, he then babbled like a brook, mainly of himself and his accomplishments, which was endearing. It made me feel it's often more important to stick with institutions when they're out of favour with the Zeitgeist than when they're in. When the public realm finally comes back into fashion, it would be nice if Couch were still here.

For instance, another young participant, consultant Hans Bathija, told me he always likes to stay in touch with the kids, by which he meant some eight-year-olds watching Clueless in the lounge on Sunday morning. What is globalization? one asked. Well, he said, I guess it's when global companies want to reduce the power of governments so they can sell more of their products. Good ol' Q&A.

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