THE VIEW FROM OTTAWA

COOL TRIPPING IN OTTAWA: THE DEATH OF LIBERALISM

PATRICK WATSON March 1 1972

THE VIEW FROM OTTAWA

COOL TRIPPING IN OTTAWA: THE DEATH OF LIBERALISM

PATRICK WATSON March 1 1972

THE VIEW FROM OTTAWA

COOL TRIPPING IN OTTAWA: THE DEATH OF LIBERALISM

PATRICK WATSON

It is a brightly cold Saturday morning outside Lester Pearson’s Rockcliffe home. Looking more rumpled than usual he sits inside a warm basement study surrounded by reminders of the country’s highest office. The loose-knit white Irish sweater hangs from him with a kind of practised and weathered grace; this amidst a clutter of gilded bric-a-brac and mementoes. A key to a city, some cornerstone trowels, a sword in a sheath, one large gold paper clip on a gold stand, a photograph of Mike with Lyndon, Mike with Bulganin and Khrushchev, Mike with the Queen and, over there, Mike’s favorite Duncan Macpherson cartoon of himself.

I had sent him some questions about being a liberal; whether the middle of the road was good enough any more; whether the Liberal Party was a liberal party; whether there was any real commitment in Canadian politics to ending poverty. Whether anyone was really on the side of the people. He had written out a set of answers, and this morning we’re sitting here looking them over.

“Every political party,” he had written, “is by definition and declaration against sin, pollution, poverty and war.”

He had elaborated this point by writing that the obstacles to this Utopia were the radicals who wanted to remake society now, damn the cost, and the reactionaries who “agree entirely in principle, but...”

Now talking about what he had written he became personal very suddenly and said: “Many young people, and not just young people either, simply can’t contemplate the future we've stuck ourselves with. I have a 17-yearold grandson who would just like to lie down in the street. I can’t blame him.” He is obviously touched by his grandson’s problem and broods a while before continuing.

“It’s really the technotronic environment that determines what we do. It started when we built the internal combustion engine. We didn’t know what we were doing! It s easy to knock down an igloo and start again. But a skyscraper . . . We’ve trapped ourselves in all these things we’ve built. The price we pay to keep on living with them is terrible.

“So some people look at all this, and they look at the nuclear threat, and they think we’ve come to the point where we can’t escape our technology and maybe we’ll just destroy life on this planet — and they can’t contemplate a future like that.”

And so there it is, exactly why the liberal balancing act just isn’t good enough anymore. Radicals hate the liberal for his cool, detached, rational response to horror. After our centuries of grappling with poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. People don’t want the liberal answers any more, the Cool Trip.

But Pearson obviously doesn’t agree that using the total power of the state to close that gap at once would be successful or even desirable. There will always be a gap, he says, and the task of government is to see that those on the bottom are not starved or degraded or cruelly deprived.

“I would not be impressed by a leader merely by his vocal alignment ‘with the poor and their cause.’ 1 would be impressed by action that established and guaranteed a foundation income.

“Unemployment can never be an ‘acceptable’ concomitant of any policy. If the choice were identifiable (it seldom is) and had to be made between inflation and unemployment, a liberal would choose the former and try to avoid the latter. But naturally you would try to remove both dangers by the kind of balanced policies that are so difficult to find and make effective.”

But some can’t contemplate the future. The sensible people, the ones who have accepted the future, agreed to keep things running, are the ones who won’t allow themselves that terrible awareness of a technologically determined future. Those who survive the liberal system, who keep on functioning, are the Cool Trippers.

In Ottawa it’s not fashionable to care much about anything. John Diefenbaker was not fashionable. His passionate excursion into power was not welcome in the halls of the bureaucracy, where the Cool Trip is much practised and totally admired. They said it was because he was too erratic, but it was really the conflict in style they didn’t like. Dief was easily ruffled; they eschewed being ruffled. Dief knew how to play off a ruffle. They didn’t, preferring, once ruffled by mistake, to pretend it hadn’t happened. That’s how you get through.

Blow a bunch of millions to refit a useless old aircraft carrier? So, cool it. Forget it. It happens. Put a lot of people out of work to beat inflation. So, cool it. It happens. If you care, don’t let anyone know. But best not to care, because when everything you do is ruled by forces outside you, when your livelihood depends upon pretending you’re in charge, how can you survive if you let on it mattered?

The ultimate irony is that the Ottawa Cool Trippers, the ones who go on functioning and oiling the great machine to make it function, the guys who have developed the Cool Trip to the point of impeccable grace, the survivors of the liberal system, are really dead. Death is the price of survival on the liberal Cool Trip.

It is the perfect, inescapable double bind.

Take Martin Loney. When I first met him, Martin was a student leader at Simon Fraser University. It was the winter of 1968-69. A large group of radical students had been arrested when they occupied the administration building — a tactic still fashionable in those days — and Loney, himself somewhat of a radical, was trying to get both sides to act temperately, trying to reopen lines of communication.

When I saw him again, two years later, he had just finished a few months work for the government in Ottawa, on a study of the consulting process between government and citizens. It was a depressing study; so many people felt that government meant nothing to them because they evidently meant nothing to government. But what was really getting Loney down was a growing conviction that the study itself was meaningless. It was wasteful, he felt, to spend money finding out what we already knew. He was convinced that nothing would come of it. He felt

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Ottawa continued / it was a total waste of his time and his training.

“Why did you take the job?”

“Money. I couldn’t get anything else. Now I’m going to England. Maybe there’s a chance to do something there. There is nothing here.”

A brilliant young man, out of favor in all quarters because he’d been a nuisance, got arrested on a minor charge during his student days, couldn’t get a permanent job anywhere, despite a good graduate degree. And now in despair over the endless liberal tactics of dealing with problems by yet another study.

But it’s not just the bright young radicals. A man in his forties, long experienced in working with native people in Canada, a tough-minded, middle-level public servant, told me that the only way he could accomplish anything useful, most of the time, was to cheat the system, use money in ways not intended by law and regulation, ignore policy, which he in any case could play no part in formulating.

“The system is almost totally inert. There are some good people here and there, and they try for a while and then they either give up and get out, or they stay and shrivel up inside. I’m thinking of getting out. Is there anything doing in television?”

Another man in a similar position told me not so long ago that five of the bright young people he has hired in the past year are getting out. They have no jobs to go to, but they can’t stand the assault on their feelings.

He said, “You know, the way you have to operate within the system doesn’t honor the values the system is supposed to support in the outside world. Democratic decisions, honesty, cooperation—they’re not honored much in the public service. It’s authoritarian as hell. So the young people either get out, or they lose their moral commitment. And if they lose their commitment, they tend to join a subculture where status with your peers demands that you cheat the system. It’s like in a prison. So it’s a double blow to a person’s attempt to stay in touch with himself — with what he feels and perceives around him.”

"Icoulc never leac a crusade and MrTrudeau wouldn't have an inqto do with one'.' perceives around him.”

Once a deputy minister (a master of survival who is top of the heap now) told me, “It’s all pointless. I’d rather be teaching in a university, but I can’t let go of my standard of living.”

It’s the Cool Trippers who are living the ultimate lie, drinking dry martinis without developing a slur, learning how not to feel, or appear not to feel, and it occurs to me, in the basement study, that these are the guys who are running it all! Making the laws, signing the cheques, hiring the bureaucrats. “It’s the technotronic environment,” says Mike Pearson, who ought to know. One gets the strange feeling that it is possible even for the prime minister of a country to say, “I’m only obeying orders. From the machine."

“Certainly there's no difference between the political parties,” Pearson continues. “My goodness, when I was prime minister, if I’d been able to choose freely I’d have built my cabinet — well, maybe out of deference to my history I’d have chosen 50% Liberals.

“The trouble with this government’s economic measures: they talked as if they didn’t care if people were out of work. It was just one of the costs you had to bear.”

The Trudeau team, now, have got the Cool Trip perfected. They have contempt for the bleeding hearts. No regard for all that is uncool.

“I think we can expect retrenchment, now. I think Mr. Trudeau will try to persuade the country it’s time to consolidate. The liberal goes forward, consolidates, goes forward, consolidates. I’m one of those. Oh, I know there’s a risk of getting stuck when you stop. But there’s a worse risk that, if you keep on with an endless program of reform, you give ammunition to the conservatives who want to create anxiety about change. Who want change to stop. You have to pause.”

“Then you’re saying,” I reply, “ ‘Now I’m pausing and becoming a conservative for a while. Why not? I can be all things to all men.’ Doesn’t that amount to saying, T just want to keep on running things here’?”

“Yes,” said Lester Pearson immediately.

It’s difficult to find a more honest or more honorable man in Canada than Lester Pearson. But if it is true that the price of survival on the liberal Cool Trip is death, it is also possible that Pearson’s characteristic posture before adversity was one that prolonged evil. Pearson, faced with a horror, would tuck his chin down, say to his comrades, “It’s not so bad; come on, boys!” and get on with it. He understood survival tactics. But the moment you say that a horror is not a horror, you banish a passionate revolt against it.

Your average Ottawa Cool Tripper says at least once a week: “Poverty in this affluent country is intolerable.” But he says it tolerantly. The Cool Tripper’s great skill has been tolerating the intolerable.

And it is the morbidity of such a posture that has driven

“Frank Underhill said once, the trouble with liberals is they think the world is all right as long as they can keep on talking about it. Liberals are talkers not doers. They may prepare the way for the revolutionary, but then he usually turns out to be a dictator,” says Lester Pearson.

many liberals from liberalism. The weariness of it. Dr. Spock should have been a liberal in any other age. But he stopped talking and started to act. He burned draft cards and stuck out his neck. In Ottawa you look in vain for the sight of an extended neck.

But one sign that Mike Pearson never did entirely join the Cool Trip, never did quite relinquish feeling despite the fact that it made him look a little foolish sometimes here in the land of the Big Mask, is that look of wistfulness that comes to his eyes from time to time during a conversation.

“I could never lead a crusade, you know . . . and Mr. Trudeau, he wouldn’t have anything to do with one. He’d think all that emotional stuff was nonsense He doesn’t trust emotion.

“Dief? Ha! Dief would lead a crusade all right, any crusade. Wouldn’t matter what it was for as long as he was leading it. I couldn’t. I’d blush if I had to stand up and shout things like ‘Follow me to the death!’ But,” he said tellingly, “I’d like to be in a crusade. Even in the front ranks.”

As he leads me upstairs from the study we pass the Macpherson cartoon again. Lester Pearson is cast in the role of a baseball fielder trying to catch a fly ball, stumbling, falling, swatting the air, glasses and cap askew, and miraculously catching it. The ball has CANADIAN UNITY written across it. “I caught it after all,” he says and chuckles to himself. It’s still Saturday morning and cold outside. ■

Patrick Watson is a TV and film producer