A national disgrace

Allan Fotheringham October 29 2001

A national disgrace

Allan Fotheringham October 29 2001

A national disgrace

Allan Fotheringham

A few years back, dabbling away at graduate studies at the University of Toronto under a generous Southam newspaper fellowship (hello there,

Izzy), this scribbler fell into the nightly seminar conducted each week by the mad genius Marshall McLuhan. Every Bay Street advertising consultant worth his salt crowded the room in attempts to follow his wild leaps from logic to cyberspace.

Tom Wolfe came up from New York and wrote, in Manhattan’s then-wonderful Herald-Tribune magazine,

“What if McLuhan—like Einstein, like Freud, like Darwin—is right?” The supposition, of course, was about McLuhans most famous premise—the medium is the message. It’s why P Trudeau beat R. Stanfield in three straight elections: he was so cool (meaning hot) on the new medium, TV, while dear old Bob in last year’s necktie wilted and died.

One day the scribbler went to the head of the Uof T political economy department, a nice man named W. T.

Easterbrook, and confessed that McLuhans meandering brilliance left the scribbler thinking himself a moron. “Not to worry,” advised Easterbrook, who had been at the University of Manitoba with the genius and was a life-long friend. “I sit in on every one of his seminars,” he said, “and I follow his thinking for a while and then he disappears into the ozone layer—about two months later he clicks on to my brain again and I understand what he’s talking about. Not to worry.” McLuhans major insight, however, may have been his nowfamous pronouncement—as all futurists he talked simple common sense—that we live now in a “global village.” Never proven more than when Stealth bombers take off from a base in Missouri and in 44 hours bomb Afghanistan, land to switch crews in Diego Garcia, a tiny British island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and return home again. No one is safe, from anywhere.

Never proven so sadly as when a clutch of graduate students, trained at American flying schools, and armed only with box cutters, destroy the very emblems of the financial power of the richest and most powerful country in the history of civilization. At a time when the Republican administration is trying to get through Congress—America’s allies nervous about the concept—a possibly $200-billion Star Wars dream of a missile shield in space. McLuhan, in his grave, must be chuckling. He

knew the global village was even smaller than we have now realized.

We’re into the global village where American bombers bomb the rubble that was left of the rubble left by the Russians who couldn’t defeat the guys in caves in the country that most Americans couldn’t find on a map. And the staff of sensational supermarket tabloids in Florida now fear suffocating death from a multimillionaire who lives in a cave. While American planes, after the bombs and missiles, drop humanitarian food packages that may feed the feeble Taliban troops.

Bobby Kennedy, after the John Diefenbaker waffling response to the 1962 Cuban missile showdown, sardonically told the aides in his brother’s Oval Office that “Canada, in times of crisis, will give you all aid short of help.” That, one suspects, must be the same reaction in the George W. Bush Oval Office— if they can find the Ottawa postal code number—to the Chrétien offer to send off CF-18s that cannot land or take off from U.S. aircraft carriers because their pilots are not trained to do so, and helicopters that are 40 years old and the fact that our three submarines have recently been decommissioned as we await four new ones. We live in a global village and we are revealed as a hamlet.

We come out of this whole thing diminished—it revealed to all the NATO partners how disgraceful has been the undernourished armed forces, a fact that our own military people have known for years. The present prime minister is the one who said in Parliament at the beginning of the Gulf War that our troops and ships would be available but should be withdrawn once any shooting started. With that, any Washington seriousness about Ottawa evaporated—which is why Mexico became the closest North American partner.

No one expects Churchillian eloquence to come out of Ottawa. No one could. All that is wanted is some belief that this prosperous, rich country could—the current cliché— “punch above its weight” in world affairs. Perhaps past Luxembourg. Or maybe Belgium. It’s disgraceful what is going on (actually what is not going on) in Ottawa with the Natural Governing Party. One cringes, when looking Americans in the eye.