Last weekend I attended an event that exemplified the best of what writers festivals have to offer. The moderator Carol Off was witty and cheerful. She quickly established a good rapport with her audience, set exactly the right tone, and deftly framed the parameters of discussion in a way that ensured an entertaining, stimulating exchange of ideas. Conditional this, however, on three panelists who were well informed, engaged, and at turns funny, profound and playful.
Here are a few notes:
Did you Know: Off has reported, on and off over the years, from some 40 countries, and many war-zones around the globe? Good training for writer event moderation.
Word has it, Off tells us, that one day in high school, Michele Lansberg, while (I’d prefer to use the word ‘whilst’ here, but Martin Amis wouldn’t approve) up in front of the principal being disciplined, struck a match on her jeans’ zipper and nonchalantly lit an Export A.
Jamie Swift, a journalist reknowned for outstanding radio work, talks about: myth and how it makes sense of chaos; and the death of peacekeeping; and the Tories’ recasting of Canadian history, and TV ads for the War of 1812…and how the Harper government spent $30 million celebrating this old war, and how this is enough to fund, for twenty years, the operation of an environmental research station up North (recently cut) that measures melting of the Ice Cap.
Also about: the climate of fear that the Harper government is stoking. Getting tough on crime even though rates are going down. Creating an us versus them dichotomy, between good people and bad; bad who will always be bad and who must be punished, instead of bad who are bad – typically when they’re young – because of a whole range of circumstances, most of whom can easily be rehabilitated to become good.
Michele Lansberg speaks of the CNE dress-up booth that this year had only one type of costume available for kids to wear: War of 1812 gear.
Mark Kingwell explains that civility is not politeness. That argument and insult are different things. That today’s public discourse is defined by the latter. He tells of a talk he delivered recently in Ottawa on this very topic on Parliament Hill, and of how during it, a table of Liberal MPs conducted a full throated conversation, oblivious to his presence, let alone the fact that he was trying to make a speech.
What is democracy? Kingwell says it’s ‘where each person counts for one’. It doesn’t matter who you are – colour, wealth, connections – we’re all equal when it comes to the vote. It’s an astonishing piece of imagination. An system that, if enough people realize it, and act upon it, can in fact result in change.
Hegel – ‘deomocracy is where quantity becomes quality’.
Kingwell: We’ve forgotten that we are citizens. We think of ourselves as consumers, propelled by the disturbing idea that everything is a transaction. The vote or taxes are given up in exchange for services – for what will benefit us personally. Kingwell sees this scenario as a battle for our souls. Citizens need to play a public role…to think about the collective good rather than brutish self-interest. Otherwise: state of nature, and the crumbling of community
Danger of ‘Money is speech’ ruling in the U.S.
Personalities are a blight on democracy. We need to focus on structure. On concepts such as Justice.
Jamie Swift: notices the ‘relentless incrementalism’ of individualism, the marketplace, heirarchy and authoritarianism at play in the Tory agenda. A ‘soft fascist modality’. Suggests that democracy is a horizon we can approach, but never quite reach. And that we have duty to work toward it.
Lots of shitting on Harper here, and a crowd that loves it. Michele Landsberg reminds audience that the dismantling of Canada’s social welfare system began with Paul Martin. (This discussion would have been much spicier, and more balanced, had a few cats – Barry Cooper or Tom Flanagan – been placed among the pigeons) .
Kingwell quotes Martin Amis: ‘Mitt Romney looks like an aging porn star.’ Later suggests that state- sponsored gambling is a tax on the desperate.
What can we do? Organize and antagonize. Contribute with argument. If people are talking B.S. call them on it.
I leave the event with a headful of new ideas jostling for time and space. Excited and satisfied. Gratified that events like these are taking place. Happy to be a…literary tourist.