COLUMN

Comforting thoughts for troubled times

‘When a nation feels compelled to specially legislate liberty and justice, there is a chance that it has neither’

BARBARA AMIEL November 25 1991
COLUMN

Comforting thoughts for troubled times

‘When a nation feels compelled to specially legislate liberty and justice, there is a chance that it has neither’

BARBARA AMIEL November 25 1991

Comforting thoughts for troubled times

COLUMN

‘When a nation feels compelled to specially legislate liberty and justice, there is a chance that it has neither’

BARBARA AMIEL

Elizabeth Taylor once mentioned that she was really no different from anyone else, except that she preferred to marry the men she loved rather than have affairs with them. I thought that this was an elegant defence of a somewhat inelegant lifestyle and have used the thought myself to explain my own record of sequential matrimony.

Nifty though the thought may be, it affords small comfort on cold nights. On the other hand, the publication of George Jonas’s new collection of essays, Politically Incorrect, cheers me up immensely.

Jonas, a former husband of mine, thanks the 14 magazine and newspaper editors who originally commissioned his essays that are reprinted in this book. Among them are former Maclean’s editor Peter C. Newman, former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford, Toronto Sun editor John Downing and Toronto Lifts Marq de Villiers. But I’m pleased to note that I commissioned some of Jonas’s very best work when I was editor of The Toronto Sun from 1983 to 1985, long after my marriage to Jonas was over. I lost a husband, but Canada gained a marvellous social and political commentator. Given the current health of the Canadian psyche and mine, I suppose Canada has the greater need.

The thoughts in Politically Incorrect have also occupied my own work for the past 20 years and, frankly, I only wish that they had been quite as concise and well expressed in my own columns. There is no specific writing on the title subject, since the entire book is an exposition of how only one set of sociopolitical views has been “politically correct” in Canada, and how wrong those views are. Jonas has not one “correct” view in his head, which makes him a very correct-thinking person, to my mind. Indeed, caring Canadians should adopt a left-libber-of-their-choice and pop a copy of Politically Incorrect into his or her Christmas stocking.

Essentially, the essays are all about the fundamental notions of Western liberal society.

They embrace a wide spectrum, from sex to politics. What distinguishes the collection is the wit and the humor that complements Jonas’s considerable intellectual ballast. His epigrammatic style illuminates like summer lightning every issue that has cropped up in the headlines over the past 20 years.

Some examples:

On status-of-women types: “Righting the perceived wrongs of women has become a career choice, like dentistry.”

On news coverage of tyranny: “Totalitarianism provides few photo opportunities.”

On moral relativism: “Christ had a tolerance for sinners; modem liberals have a tolerance for sin.”

On AIDS: “The cause of the disease is a virus—but the cause of the epidemic is a lifestyle.”

On the Canadian Bill of Rights: “When a nation feels compelled to specially legislate liberty and justice, there is a chance that it has neither.”

On Bill C-54 (the punitive media bill), the Conservative government’s controversial attempt to legislate pornography in 1987: “Before there are any hideous laws, there’s usually a hideous climate.”

On affirmative action: “Most intellectual debates on [affirmative action] are nothing but attempts to reconcile liberal self-images with illiberal social positions.”

The tradition in which Jonas works is familiar to readers in Europe. There, one finds a wide choice of extremely literate and articulate thinkers such as France’s Raymond Aron or England’s Paul Johnson—with a very different point of view from the left-liberal tradition that dominates most Canadian writing. Just across the Canadian border, the United States has a cornucopia of clever writers in this tradition: Allan Bloom, Edward Jay Epstein, George F. Will, James Q. Wilson, Norman and Midge Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, who graduated from McGill University in Montreal, and Suzanne Garment, to name only a few.

Canada has the occasional example, most often seen in a literate letter to the editor from an academic. But most alternative voices in Canada operate only on the level of popular newspaper columns such as those by The Toronto Sun’s Robert MacDonald or, at its very best, by Peter Worthington. This is resolutely non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual journalism. The few different voices we had, and the promising younger generation of Canadians, including David Frum and the group at Canada’s The Idler magazine, fled this country, were sidelined or wretchedly ignored by the Canadian arts-and-grants community.

Jonas is too good to ignore. I suspect many Canadians share his sentiments on issues ranging from sexual harassment to the reunification of Germany, but the singular importance of Politically Incorrect is this: it develops the intellectual arguments that lie behind many of the convictions held by ordinary people.

The essays give readers the historical and moral weapons they need to fight the received wisdom of their “betters” in the media and government. This is no mean task. Left-liberals have made people feel that the common-sense convictions they hold are shameful and nothing more than the despicable reactions of rednecks. Down this road lies the self-hatred and guilt that gripped the United States in the 1970s.

The grip of the politically correct virus on the Canadian intelligentsia has had an insidious side effect. Our arts and intellectual communities have long been infected by the deadly mix of neo-Victorian prudery and left-wing neoMcCarthyism that lies at the heart of politically correct thought. This has condemned Canadians whose interests lie in matters of the spirit and the mind to mix with the politically correct crowd—or be banished to the company of the intellectually barren, the genuine rednecks.

Jonas gives one hope. He knows about opera, poetry, history and philosophy—and he also knows that “three-quarters of everything militant feminists have been saying or writing in the last 15 years ranges from the baseless to the base.”

Most importantly, he reminds us that common sense is not the exclusive preserve of Philistines and illiterates, a warm thought in the long winter facing our nation.