Ideas: Brilliant Thinkers Speak their Minds

by Bernie Lucht, ed.
336 pages,
ISBN: 0864924399

Post Your Opinion
Smart Folks, Smart Talk
by Paul Drolet

The celebrated CBC radio series Ideas has been on the air for 40 years. To mark the occasion, Bernie Lucht, executive producer of the series has culled an impressive list from some of the show's finest interviews and lectures and produced a book. The subjects run the gamut: democracy and dictatorship, the nation-state, the public good, ideology, utopianism, religion, peace and violence; in short, the warp and woof of this beacon of Canadian intellectual life.
Lucht strikes a balance with the entries¨which range from the '60s to the present¨and with the contributors. Canadian contributors include George Woodcock, Northrop Frye, Romeo Dallaire, Bob Rae, and Charles Taylor. The likes of Conor Cruise O'Brien, Noam Chomsky, Bernard Lewis, Margaret McMillan, and George Steiner are among the international heavyweights.
For some, the year 2000 had about it the ring of finality and thus it was a propitious time for historian Eugene Weber's 1999 Barbara Frum lecture, titled: "Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages".
Almost from the start, mankind has looked to the end of days, to the apocalypse, or, as Weber would have it, "the revelation or unveiling of the world's destiny and of mankind's fate." He deftly charts the obduracy of this belief from Biblical days to the present. From righteous crusaders of the Middle Ages to modern figures such as Jim Jones and David Koresh, those who have knelt at the altar of the apocalyptic, and who harbour the conceit that their strivings could usher in the New Jerusalem, have steered much history and shed much blood. The species, Weber solemnly remarks, has never entirely shorn itself of the yoke of superstition.
How to explain this? "Perhaps," Weber hypothesises, "it responds to profound human aspirations: to avoid death, to believe that death is only a prelude to resurgence and revival." At its core, however, the apocalyptic creed is an escape, a balm to our bruising finitude, and the promise of light in the darkness of our quotidian lives. "We hunger for myths, for total explanation. We are starving for guaranteed prophecy." These aren't Weber's words, but those of George Steiner, whose 1974 lecture, "The Secular Messiahs", can profitably be read alongside Weber's. To put this in our fashionable therapeutic idiom, the religious pulse has been displaced, but it beats nonetheless.
What surrogate myths, Steiner asks, have filled the breach these last two hundred years since the march of modernity capped the wellsprings of religious faith? Marxism, for one. It had, Steiner argues, all the pillars of a true mythology. It claimed a "totality", that is, it offered a gestalt or a comprehensive view of our history, the meaning of our lives, and our eschatology. It had its canonical texts, disciples, and heretics¨those who would splinter away, claiming they carried the true torch of the founder's message. Finally, it developed its own language and iconography.
Steiner says Marxism's "structure, aspirations, (and) claims on the believer were profoundly religious in strategy and effect." He goes on: "The destructive but cleansing fire of its truth, i.e., the materialist-dialectical understanding of the economic and social force of history would lead enslaved humanity to the new dawn of freedom." An Edenic paradise would be coaxed from the seeds of history. But as Marxism lurched to the gulags and bureaucratic terror of Stalin, why, one must ask, would anyone continue to serve, to believe, and to die for it? "It is in the light of the messianic vision," Steiner concludes, "of the great promise which says you will wade through hell up to your eyeballs if necessary because you are destined, the prophetic way to the resurrection of man in the kingdom of justice."
No stranger to the apocalyptic note, Helen Caldicott, tireless critic of nuclear weapons and the arms race, told Ideas producer Sara Wolch in 1984, "I'm really socking it to people now, saying 'do you want your kids to live or not?'" Her aim, she says, was to jolt people from their state of manic denial, their "psychic numbing." If Caldicott's oratory has occasionally strayed into the sphere of the histrionic, one must, in her defence, consider the stakes and the context of the times.
The world bristled with nuclear tension in the early 1980s. Reagan had ratcheted up the arms race with the Soviet Union. In her 1984 Jacob Bronowski Memorial lecture, Caldicott describes the annihilatory power and devastation of a limited nuclear war. Citing studies from the World Health Organization, she says: "We could count on a billion dead within the first hour. In the next few weeks, one billion more would die of the effects I've described. Have you got the message?"
The account of her meeting with President Reagan must have left many in the audience with jaws agape. She found the president affable, avuncular, and severely limited, if not obtuse. "I left the White House in a state of clinical shock," she says. "I think he's incapable of understanding the gravity of the situation."
The charge that Caldicott had too benign an estimate of Soviet intentions may be fair. But her unstilled voice compels us to look into the abyss. Twenty years have past and the nuclear riddle remains. Today, in the murk of the Middle East, Iran is set to join the nuclear 'family'.
The shadows yawned on one of Canada's most esteemed men of letters in the fall of 1990 when he sat with the CBC's David Cayley. Northrop Frye recounts how he shucked the fundamentalist strain of his early Methodist background. Influenced early on by the poet William Blake, Frye would come to regard and champion the Bible as the true fount of Western civilization's imaginaire. "The Bible is the model," he says, "the arts are the means."
The old Canadian conundrum about identity is addressed in at least two pieces. Any canuck who doubts that we in the North American attic differ from our neighbours to the south would do well to read the lively exchange between Bob Rae and William Kristol, publisher and editor of the American Weekly Standard. I confess here to complete partiality, but Rae, soon afterwards ousted as premier of Ontario, routs Kristol handily in a debate over the role of the welfare state.
Doesn't talk of "identity" in the singular miss the mark of who we are? There is no melting pot for us. Philosopher and political theorist Charles Taylor, champion of the "politics of recognition" navigates the shoals between the uniformity of individual rights, as adumbrated in Trudeau's Charter, and the desire for collective identity. Taylor claims that as long as people say, "I recognize your identity don't ask me to recognize your difference," the bOte-noire that is Quebec will remain. I only wish David Cayley would have pressed Taylor and asked: If the Quebecois insist they are un people¨if the indefinite article stands¨doesn't the principle apply a fortiori to the Metis or the province's Northern Cree, as its leader Matthew Coon Come insisted when the country again stood on the precipice of separation in 1995? And what then becomes of the separatist insistence that it would retain its current borders after independence? In the same broadcast on the theme of "Common Culture, Multiculture", which aired on June 28, 1988, both Bernie Farber¨in his fight for public funding of Jewish schools in Ontario¨and Bob Davis, who initiated a Black studies program in a Scarborough high school, effectively scotch the notion that their efforts lead to hermetically sealed, non-communicating enclaves that don't feed the common culture.
"The Legitimacy of Violence as a Political Act" was the topic for a panel discussion that comprised notables Hannah Arendt, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Robert Lowell, and Noam Chomsky. Lively and instructive throughout, the reader will no doubt detect, from the examples Chomsky adduces, his tendentious anti-American strain.
There is more, much more, in this fine compilation. A bruised Romeo Dallaire and an angry Gerald Caplan discuss the paralytic ineptitude of the U.N., and the world's seeming indifference to the Rwandan genocide.
I close with the broadcast of September 13, 2001¨two days after Islamist terrorists hurled civilian airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon¨and the perspicuous comments of Janice Stein: "If, as I suspect, the United States uses military force against targets that did not participate in planning this, we deepen the culture of martyrdom, we encourage the recruits, and we make it easier, not harder, for those who are attracted and seduced by this evil to do it. In effect, we create a war. That's where the real danger is." ˛

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