July 19 was a fairly normal day for newspaper stories. Tory Leader Brian Mulroney apologized for one of his remarks; Marc Lalonde announced he would not seek re-election. The Globe and Mail, a paper that describes itself as Canada’s national newspaper, covered those events. It also printed a column by staff writer Carole Corbeil. That column turned out to be the most remarkable thing about the July 19 edition of the Globe. It was the most candid and revealing illustration of the institutionalization of the far left in our mainstream media.
Many Canadians are not really aware of the far-left political biases held by some commentators in our major media. Obviously those commentators have every right to hold their views. But people like myself have an equal right and, frankly, a responsibility to point out their specious thinking. And it is an interesting comment on our times that, while the far left does exist happily in our mainstream press, there is not a single far-right commentator there.
Corbeil’s column was occasioned by the publication of a book called The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky, a Czech writer who came to Canada after the Soviet invasion of his country. Corbeil’s review of Skvorecky’s new book was not favorable. But having made her literary judgments she went further. She decided to use Skvorecky to tackle the most irritating problem the far left faces: the thorn in their side of the East European refugee.
The neo-Marxist commentators in our society live in a delusionary world of moral superiority. They alone care about justice and decency. They can dismiss all their critics as ignorant rednecks, or comfortable fat cats, or closedminded provincials who are just ignorant about the marvels of scientific socialism. Only one category of critic gives them trouble: the Josef Skvoreckys of our time.
Far from being redneck, most of that sort of refugees have read Flavius Josephus in Latin and can recite Rilke sonnets in the original German. With the possible exception of a Solzhenitsyn, the East European intellectual generally ekes out a precarious living and could have done much better kissing the hem of some totalitarian party leader. Most of them have studied the most esoteric theories of Marxism and their current political stances are often still left of
centre. There is no easy way to dismiss their criticism of far-left shibboleths.
The usual way for the far left to deal with such people is to ignore them. A man like Josef Skvorecky, after all, is a living reminder to people like Ms. Corbeil that much of their philosophy is built upon naïveté and illusion. But Corbeil decided to tackle the problem and when she did, all her resentment and frustration poured out.
The main problem with Skvorecky, she wrote, “is his unbearable smugness which is beginning to be an altogether too common trait in the work of exiled Eastern European writers.” Corbeil acknowledged that those smug East Europeans have suffered in totalitarian countries for their causes, but she does not feel this is an excuse for the way in which they criticize newand far-left causes like feminism. Their “gimmick,” she wrote, “is always to trivialize any progressive Western cause. When they
We are so attuned to the dangers of our virtually nonexistent far right that no one even notices the far lefty
write about [Western] radicals’ ‘grotesque complaints’ they are merely silly. This silliness is the result of the absolute licence these writers feel their experience has given them.”
That is astonishing. Of course suffering, or simple experience, gives one a licence to comment, criticize and even to ridicule. Corbeil knows that. One feels certain that Corbeil would not dismiss the licence that experience would give a Jewish death camp survivor or a black South African writer who satirized Western intellectuals flirting with neofacism. But Skvorecky is contemptuous of young Western intellectuals like Corbeil who flirt with neo-Marxism.
The school of thought Corbeil represents was once known as the new left. It believes in a range of ideas that, in effect, hold the United States to be an imperialist power and a racist and sexist society. It believes that the United States lacks social justice, is materialistic and competitive at the expense of human decency and j ustice, is a threat to peace and is insufficiently concerned with the preservation of whales. At the same time, exponents of those views
hold that, imperfect though they may be, leftist guerrillas around the world are generally seeking justice and fighting wars of liberation, and that the Soviet Union’s imperialism may be due to the fact that it is overly sensitive to aggression because it lost so many people in the Second World War. The far left is apologist for the PLO terrorists, the IRA or marauding Central American left-wing gangs of guerrillas. While Ms. Corbeil may not have expressed each and every one of those opinions, they would, I think, be a fair description of her Weltanschauung. To match that sort of thinking a far-right columnist would have to, for example, be an apologist for the right-wing death squads of El Salvador or the Phalangist massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. That would be unthinkable for mainstream conservative columnists.
Corbeil’s resentment of Skvorecky and of other East European writers living in the West comes precisely from her inability to deal with the authority that experience lends to their criticism of people like herself. She cannot use the usual excuses to dismiss the thoughts of Josef Skvorecky or such writers as Ignazio Silone or Solzhenitsyn. They are not former Western movie actors like Ronald Reagan. They are intellectuals and, worse, they have been there.
It is an interesting side issue that the capitalist, monopolistic media that the new left derides is the only hope Corbeil has for a platform. Though her political thoughts are against every value that the publisher or owner of The Globe and Mail would hold, Corbeil will be published for several reasons. For one, publishers think that shocking the bourgeoisie sells papers. And publishers, often being more concerned with bottom-line profits than the works of Marcuse, simply would not know or care what Corbeil writes about. Thirdly, we are so attuned in this society of ours to the dangers and vocabulary of our virtually nonexistent far right that no one even notices the far left.
Since I happen to believe in every point of view getting a platform—no matter how morally bankrupt—the publication of Corbeil does not disturb me. But don’t anyone tell me that the far right is menacing us. They have not come within spitting distance. And spitting is the trademark of Corbeil and her right-wing equivalents.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.