We Like Opinions, We Really Do

By David Hayes, The Globe and Mail Book Review; November 14, 2009

You Can’t Say That in Canada
By Margaret Wente
HarperCollins, 211 pages

Canada and Other Matters of Opinion
By Rex Murphy
Doubleday Canada, 329 pages

I like opinion columnists. I really do. I admire writers like Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy – whose columns appear in the pages of The Globe and Mail – for producing each week (more frequently, in Wente’s case), come rain or shine, inspiration or dearth thereof, their thoughts on the matters of the hour.

But no matter how talented the writer, some columns must be dashed off to meet a deadline and, in fact, may benefit from what was once known as the 24-hour news cycle (but is now, in the age of Twitter, about 2.5 minutes). That’s because opinions, which in columnist-speak must be assured and authoritative, are often formed on the fly, as stories develop, without the benefit of new information that emerges with the passage of time.

The best columnists always come through – these are pros, after all – but readers don’t always get burnished prose. So the weakness of many collections of columns is that they read like that most stale of all products in the information industry: old news. There’s a reason The Globe and Mail’s statesmanlike political columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, publishes a refreshing mea culpa every new year in which he admits he was wrong a good deal of the time. To even think of having your columns published must surely be an act of profound courage, reckless optimism or hubris.

Wente’s and Murphy’s new column collections – You Can’t Say That in Canada and Canada and Other Matters of Opinion – try to solve this problem in slightly different ways. Yet each suffers nonetheless, one more than the other.

When The Economist ranked the world’s 20 most influential newspaper columnists, Wente was the only Canadian on the list. In an equally scientific study, cocktail-party chatter and letters to the editor of The Globe and Mail suggest that she is both respected and reviled, labelled a right-wing flunky and bleeding-heart gadfly and, like any opinion columnist who attracts so many opinions, very well read by fans and critics alike. (Most people I know seem to regard her as a conservative, but a conservative blogger recently offered her this helpful advice: “It’s advisable to indicate to your audience that you in fact possess something akin to a functioning brain.”)

Wente (or her editor) wisely decided to reprint a collection of columns grouped thematically, with plenty of commentary on herself and her life-as-a-columnist included. It’s a hybrid memoir and column collection, which is perhaps the best approach a columnist could take to minimize the damage.

Sometimes she addresses what she is best known for: controversy. Take, for example, her 2008 column defending Dick Pound, then vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, for his remark to a reporter from La Presse that Canada was, centuries ago, “un pays de sauvages.” Acknowledging that Pound’s words were “inflammatory,” she then inflamed a good chunk of the Canadian population by agreeing with him. “For some suicidal reason,” Wente writes, “I decided to argue that his tactless comment might not have been totally incorrect and that European civilization, in fact, was in many ways more advanced. … I learned that the power of a single word (savages) can blind people to everything else you have to say …”

Not exactly a grovelling apology but more nuanced than her original column.

But Wente-haters seldom realize that she can be thoughtful; the section on growing old, in which she reflects on what it will mean to be elderly without children or, depending on circumstances, a spouse, is frankly poignant. And she’s often quite funny. She can rip off a one-liner with the best of them. (On Peter Newman: “At eighty, he remains extraordinarily prolific, perhaps on account of all the money he owes his ex-wives.” On Barbara Amiel: “I had once written that few women in the world could afford to dress like Lady Black, and that she, perhaps, was not among them.”)

Unafraid to revisit past tempests, she reprints her column on Newfoundland that ignited a mighty brouhaha. (Sample: “I like Newfoundlanders. I really do,” but “you can keep all the oil and gas reserves. And you can pay us back all the money we’ve sent you since you joined Confederation. Fair enough?”) Then she explains, “I hadn’t really meant to say that Newfoundlanders are lazy welfare bums. My comments were meant to describe the province’s doleful economics, its history of bad policy leadership and Mr. [Danny] Williams’s theatrical shenanigans.”

It’s entirely possible to do that without enraging the entire province of Newfoundland, although perhaps not in a way that attracts so much attention. But never mind, the amusing part isn’t the old controversy but Wente’s account of when “Margaret Wente” later arrived in St. John’s and was accosted everywhere by irate islanders. Except it wasn’t the columnist, it was Maggie Wente, her niece. When niece Maggie explained to a reporter that she doesn’t share all of her aunt’s views, Wente received an e-mail that read: “Even your own niece thinks you’re a jerk!”

Such is the lot of the opinion columnist. So what of Rex Murphy’s contribution to the literature of column-writing? He is perhaps Canada’s premier pundit, with his Globe column, commentaries on CBC’s The National and host spot on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup. A Newfoundlander with a dulse-coated voice and dancing eyebrows, in his home province he’s known by his surname alone, like Madonna or Cher. (Don Quixote is a better cultural reference point, although Murphy’s hero is Malcolm Muggeridge, whom he describes in his introduction as “the great Gandalf of twentieth-century journalism.”)

But the weakness here is too many previously published columns and not enough context from the writer to bind it all together and provide a glimpse into the mind behind the columnist. (There are little postscripts scattered through the text, in which Murphy adds a few details, and he says that he fine-tuned some of the columns after the fact, but readers may wish for more.)

Murphy’s playful, often joyous use of language is always entertaining. (Don Cherry is “the natty, high-collared Homer of hockey.”) And his facility with a skewer is often more surgical than Wente’s. (On Maxime Bernier: “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with dating the former girlfriend of a Hells Angels cavalier, but it would be a sign of minimal gravitas, if you happened to be one of the highest-ranking cabinet ministers of a national government, to fish from a less tumultuous pool.”)

“I make no pretense of being earnest in any final sense of that term,” he writes in his introduction, “and have long since parted with the delusion that my opinions, because they are mine, are less hostage to fallibility or walk nearer with truth than those of many others.”

So, as he also says, he feels his role is to “bark occasionally at the consensus, to highlight the absurdities, mock the vain celebrities and puncture the politicians.”

To be a contrarian, in other words, the role so many opinion columnists adopt. Not to necessarily plumb the depths of an issue, despite the additional time afforded. You’ll likely read Murphy’s book, like Wente’s, because you either agree with his take on the world or like to be outraged by it, all over again, in one collected dosage rather than week to week in the newspaper.

Of course, I kept an eye peeled throughout his section on Newfoundland for his columnist colleague, and there she was, lined up in his sights like a seal pup on a floe. After flaying Wente’s ideas in that infamous Newfoundland column, he wrote: “Shut down the Newfie joke industry, of which, it mildly saddens me to say, Margaret Wente’s column is an extended and singularly hostile example. … That said, I like Margaret Wente. I really do.”