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Atwood for Mayor – an unlikely prospect

July 31, 2011 Leave a comment

The mini boom in Canada’s largest city in support of Margaret Atwood for Mayor raises some interesting questions. Would the 71-year-old novelist, poet and sometime political activist ever seriously consider jumping into politics? And if she did run for Mayor of Toronto, could she win?

To this point, the gathering support for Atwood for Mayor is not much more than a lighthearted fling, a spontaneous outbreak of enthusiasm following her intervention in the debate over the future of the city’s library system.

The novelist is accustomed to taking stands on issues affecting arts and culture. She’s been a bitter critic of Stephen Harper. Now, in the wake of Mayor Rob Ford’s determination to “cut the gravy” from city spending, she’s become the prime proponent of saving the Toronto Public Library’s 99 branches that circulate more books than any other system in North America.

Ms. Atwood started it all with a Tweet to her 233,361 followers on July 21, responding to the KPMG report that identified library closings as a possible way of helping the city out of the $750 million hole that Mayor Rob Ford has dug it into in the first year of his term.

The Tweet heard round Canada: “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now.” Her appeal drove readers to an online petition on a web site of the Library Workers Union. The site promptly crashed, and as I write (Sunday, July 31) it’s attracted 41,499 signatures.

More pointed Tweets followed, including this one:

“Twin Fordmayor cld fight for fair shake from ON, but that’s not the agenda? T(he)y want to trash old folks + readers + working moms instead?

The Twin Ford reference cleverly links in the Mayor’s witless brother, Doug Ford, who promptly denied any knowledge of who Margaret Atwood might be, or what she does.

“Good luck to Margaret Atwood, I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me – I wouldn’t have a clue who she is,”  Ford said in response to Atwood’s tweets. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected. I’m happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

So how about it, Margaret Atwood. Would you run for Mayor?

Anyone who knows her knows that Margaret Atwood could never fill the role of a back-slapping politician. But she wouldn’t be the first artist to go for political office. I’m thinking of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and poet dissident who was the President of free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. Or Jan Paderewski, the great Polish composer and pianist who was the second Prime Minister of an independent Poland after the First World War.

Would Ms. Atwood have the interest, the stamina, or the ability to withstand the inanities of a political life? Anyone who’s been through the ordeal of author tours as she has, surely has the stamina. Age is not a factor. Look at Hazel McCallion, long-serving mayor of neighboring Mississauga, and at 90 only now is in what will be her final term.

But let’s face it, Margaret Atwood running for Mayor of Toronto is a highly unlikely prospect.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment, and pretend Toronto voters could choose between Atwood and Ford in the next election.The campaign would be highly entertaining, pitting culture against the barbarians. However, like all things political, it probably wouldn’t be fought on any rational understanding of issues facing the city. The Ford forces would depict Margaret Atwood as a “tax and spend liberal.” She’d fight back, brilliantly, but perhaps not successfully.

The library controversy is a case in point. It would be nice to have a rational discussion of the cost/benefits of the city’s chain of libraries. Doug Ford claimed, erroneously, there were more branches in  his Etobicoke district than there were Tim Hortons coffee shops. Not true, but what’s that got to do with it?

With the city hard pressed to cover its costs, perhaps a rational analysis might turn up one or two libraries that could be closed without depriving anyone of reasonable access. Even if that were the case, the savings would be miniscule. But it would give Mayor Ford the spoon of gravy that he needs to feed the right-wing voters who put him in office.

As of today, Margaret Atwood is off Twitter for a week, busy on a writing project. Maybe she’ll tell us when she comes back how she would feel about becoming a politician.

The Marshall McLuhan I knew

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The ability to foresee an age before it unfolds is a rare insight given to few mortals. One such person was Marshall McLuhan, and Thursday, July 19th, marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. A day to stop and measure the man.

Michael Valpy has done so in this excellent article in the Globe and Mail. He observes that the communications oracle, renowned during the 1960s when few understood what he was talking about, is seldom thought of today when we can all appreciate, with hindsight, what he  meant when he spoke of the “global village” and “the medium is the message.”

I feel privileged to have known Marshall McLuhan, who died on Dec. 31, 1980, at the early age of 69. He’d suffered from a brain tumor for nearly twenty years, something that often led him to eccentric statements that undermined the reputation he had built up with his early works, such as The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media.

My sharpest memory of the man is from the evening in the late 60s when he spoke to a meeting of Canadian Sigma Delta Chi, the journalistic fraternity. I was president of the Canadian branch at the time. It was a unfortgettable occasion to be in the presence of this brilliant man (I was never his student).

The most memorable statement I recall McLuhan ever having made dealt with something that would become familiar to us all as the Internet — almost thirty years before the advent of this new communications technology.

“Why do we buck traffic jams to get to the office every day?” he asked. “It’s because of the files, they’re all down at the office. But we could all access these at home, by broadband. Why don’t we do it?”

When we opened the new office of Argyle Communications on Bloor Street in Toronto in 1995, I got the idea of dedicating our boardroom to McLuhan’s memory. Son Eric McLuhan kindly facilitated a gift we made in his memory to the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, and we duly christened the room which bore on one wall  an impressive photo of the man.Pretty cool!

Here’s an old CBC-TV clip from those days:

Brave new electronic world

Would Marshall McLuhan have been distressed at the closing of the second-largest book store chain in the United States? The decision by Borders to shutter its 399 stores, laying off 10,000 employees, sounds as yet another echo of the death knell of the book. After spending months in bankruptcy, and failing to turn up a buyer, there was apparently no other choice than to shut down the stores.

Poor decision-making by Borders management was a factor in the closing. The company ignored the impact of the E-Book on its business. While Barnes and Noble and, in Canada, Chapters Indigo were promoting their own E-Book readers, and Apple’s IPad was winning millions of converts, Borders stood still. It missed the opportunity to make up, via E-Book sales,  the revenue being lost from the declining sale of hard copy books.

How to get a book review

English Lissa Evans has found a clever way to ask for her book to be reviewed. See it here.

Last word of a TV journalist

They’re saying it’s “gone viral” — the WordPress blog by former CTV journalist Kai Nagata on why he quit his job. A litany of unhappy conclusions on what it means to be in the TV news racket these days. You can read it here.

Rise and fall of the media barons

July 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Update: Murdoch drops BSkyB bid.

Rupert Murdoch’s problems with the News of the World and his bid to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) are but the latest examples of how media barons are inclined to overreach themselves. Their frenetic efforts to grow ever bigger often lead not just to excess, but to collapse.

Examples include Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born British publishing tycoon who died, apparently a suicide, by falling from his yacht while cruising off the Canary islands. He’d risen from poverty to become the lord of the London Daily and Sunday Mirror, the New York Daily News, and the publisher Macmillan. After his death it was revealed he’d looted the company pension plan for money to shore up the shares of his company.

The exploits of Canada’s own Lord Black are well-known. He lost Hollinger International, which included the London Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and a chain of Canadian papers including his start-up, the National Post. In September, he’ll go back to jail to finish his prison term for fraud and obstruction of justice.

One of the biggest media barons of all was William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper, magazine and broadcasting empire ruled American society and politics through much of the first half of the 20th century. Most famously remembered for his role in promoting the Spanish-American War of 1898, his early life has been chronicled by Ken Whyte, the first editor of Black’s National Post, in The Uncrowned King (Random House Canada). Today’s Hearst Corp. is still a force in American media, although incomparably less influential than during Hearst’s lifetime.

Interest in Rupert Murdoch is of course sparked by the scandal over his late and unlamented News of the World. This episode is turning out to be as damaging to the British political establishment as it is to Murdoch’s hopes of expanding his empire by the full acquisition of the UK’s most profitable satellite broadcasting service. It reveals a society of craven political operatives in both the Conservative and Labor parties who begged at Murdoch’s knees for his support.

Because the current Prime Minster David Cameron won that support, and even hired a former News editor as his spokesperson, he’s the one who is in almost as much trouble as Murdoch. It’s no surprise that Cameron is backing a Labor party motion urging Murdoch to withdraw his BSkyB takeover proposal.

Ever the resourceful player, Murdoch has taken some desperate steps to protect his interests. He’s opted for a longer review of his take-over bid by the UK Competition Commission. This means a closer examination, but also one that gains time for the current scandal to die away. And he’s set aside 5 billion pounds to buy back NewsCorp shares, thereby strengthening their market value; this may help to quiet a group of dissident shareholders.

For all of Murdoch’s embarrassments, his biggest problem could be these same shareholders. A group has sued his NewsCorp, accusing it of large-scale governance failures that allowed the phone hacking scandal in the first place. It was unhappy shareholders, one should recall, who triggered the events leading to Lord Black’s downfall.

The seasoned American writer Michael Wolff dissects Murdoch’s life and personality in The Man Who Owns the News (Broadway Books). Murdoch, an Australian, has for years been the pre-eminent global media baron, with operations all over the world. His American properties include the Wall Street Journal and the tabloid New York Post, plus FoxTV. He would probably be in Canada but for our legislation which prevents foreign media ownership.

It was Murdoch’s acquisition of the venerable London Times, Wolff writes, “that turned him from a vulgarian operating at the margins of the business into, well, a threat to truth.” In America, Wolff adds, his take-over of the Wall Street Journal “is the ultimate fuck-you to the people who have always believed they embody respectability.”

Forgotten time in a forgotten land

Not many people in the West knew or cared much about the fate of three small Baltic countries in eastern Europe that suffered through Russian occupation, German invasion, and the return of the Soviets late in the Second World War.

Only since the collapse of the USSR and the demolition of the Iron Curtain has the return to freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania been duly noted and celebrated.

Antanas Sileika’s novel Underground (Thomas Allen, $15.64) is a notable addition  to the literature of that great conflict, delivering a suspenseful and poignant love story set against the harsh cruelties and risk-filled lives of its protagonist Lukas and his lover and wife Elena.  In its weaving of a rich tapestry of love, history, war and politics, it is reminiscent of Dr. Zhivago in its focus on the lives of a man and a woman who must put their resistance to oppression ahead of their personal happiness.

I became acquainted with Antanas Sileika in his capacity as artistic director of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. His masterful evocation of conditions in Lithuania under Soviet occupation immediately after the war aptly demonstrates his strengths as a writer as well as a teacher.

I found Sileika’s ability to weave factual history into a dramatic narrative especially compelling. The book at times reads as a work of  non-fiction in its depiction of the mid-century turmoil that gripped eastern Europe:

“What followed was such a confusing war on that side of Europe! The war was much easier to understand in the West, where the forces of more or less good triumphed in May 1945. On the Eastern side, on the other hand, the messy side, the war sputtered on in pockets for another decade, fought by partisans who came out of their secret bunkers by night.”

Lukas was one of those partisans, and the book begins with a shocking slaughter carried out by he and Elena when they lure a clutch of Soviet underlings to a supposed engagement party. Forced into hiding, they live in forest bunkers until, in a raid that scours a village of most of its life, Lukas comes to believe that Elena has been killed.

Lukas is sent into the West as an emissary of the Lithuanian underground, carrying an appeal for help. Why hasn’t America dropped an atomic bomb on Moscow, some wonder. When he reaches Paris he becomes involved with a Lithuanian refugee, Monika, whom he marries and with whom he fathers a son. When he hears that Elena may be still alive, he abandons Monika and returns on a risk-filled trip to his home country. There, one way or another, his destiny will be decided.

Underground gains momentum as it builds toward its inevitable climax. There is an interesting Canadian connection, which is not surprising in view of the author’s declaration that the story has been inspired by his own family’s history, as well as the experiences of their Lithuanian countrymen. This is a powerfully imagined book which reminds us that political oppression in whatever form eventually brings on a wrathful vengeance. One cannot help but reflect on how similar stories must at this very moment be working their way out in countries like Libya, Syria and Iran.