dr george pollard
Dr Randal Marlin is a philosopher, teacher and author. His expertise is the shady world of propaganda. Some, especially those he catches doing no good, call him the “Orwell of Ottawa.”
Understanding power and how easy it is to misuse came, for Dr Marlin, from the most influential teachers, school year bullies. Who lucked out, avoiding school yard bullies? A few got away, not many. Who learned an intellectual lesson from bullies? Dr Randal Marlin, that’s who, and we benefit.
Born in Washington, DC, Marlin had a colourful childhood. His father worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Disenchanted, with the OSS, his father got a new job and the family moved to Montreal. When his mother wanted to recapture her Irish roots, the family moved to Eire. Marlin went to boarding school, in England. Later, he attended Princeton, McGill, Oxford and the University of Toronto, and is now a Canadian citizen.
Marlin learned how power, the capacity to get your way, at any cost, can be a slippery slope for anyone, himself included. On the student newspaper at Princeton University, the “Daily Princetonian,” Marlin butted heads with the university administration. He tested professors by skipping classes, preferring late-night poker to rising early. He even took on the late William F. Buckley, coming out on top. Later, as a homeowner, he struggled to keep his neighbourhood safe for families; taking on the city and winning.
Now 70, Dr Marlin shares the strength and wisdom that pushed him to learn and develop. He’s not afraid to admit he’s erred. He owns his share of pain inflicted and opportunities missed. You wouldn’t like him otherwise. In this interview, Dr Marlin allows a glimpse into his personal make-up, and the ideas behind his most recent book, "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion," published by Broadview Press.
Quoting cartoons and Plato, Dr Marlin shows how the most lethal lie overflows, with truth. His main idea isn’t philosophical or a concern for scholarly matters of truth and lying. Rather, Dr. Marlin focuses on the news media, and the interests of news sources.
The media stir-fry intrigues him. He talks about how the news media present facts, on a platter. The dish, prepared to entice, the facts arranged to appear as delicious as possible. The goal, he notes, is that you’ll ask for seconds, but not how, why or with what effects.
Part of his gift is to detect, to disassemble, to say, “Hey!ï¿½ That’s tofu under there!ï¿½ Didn’t we order steak, in the last election?” No offence to tofu, we love delicious stir-fried tofu, but Dr Marlin wants us to know exactly what we are putting in our minds, when and why.
From the rugby field to the office of the US President, Dr Marlin notes, well, how we engage, with genuine intent or not. His faith in humanity is endearing. His work is enlightening. His message is wariness. His personal example is powerful.
Grub Street (GS) As a total outsider to “the game,” how does one philosophize? What do you do to philosophize?
Dr Randall Marlin (DRM) Your questions reminds me of a “New Yorker” cartoon, which I pinned on the door of my office. It shows a picture of a man reclining in a chair and he's obviously lost in the clouds, puffing his pipe, and his wife is saying to somebody else, outside, “He's philosophy-driven.” There is a [common] conception the philosopher is in an easy chair.
Well, it's a matter of having an interest in some of the basic questions of life and living, basic questions of society. That's my particular bent. I've been, on the one hand, in [contact], with these great thinkers of the past and, at the same time, I've been a community activist. I've been very interested in the study of the media in relation to how it affects thinking and things like justice. So there you're on to Plato and “What is justice?”
GS Is Plato your base?
DRM Yes, I think so. I thought as Plato in high school, at the undergraduate level, at the graduate level at McGill. My education and work is a continuity of the Platonic tradition. At Oxford I really got a good grounding in Plato.
That doesn't mean that you stick in one place intellectually. When you really study Plato, you realize that he was somebody who was [analyzing and commenting on] his own time. You're not true to the master if all you do is study Plato. You need to look at the world around you in the same way that he was looking at the world around him.
GS How did you come to see the world the way you do?
DRM I had an unusual upbringing. I was born in Washington, D.C. and I was there until the age of seven and a half or so. Then, my father, who had been working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in Ireland, had some falling out with a powerful person. Anyway, we began moving.
The OSS was the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). My father was very down on some of the destabilization activities the CIA was about to become involved with.
My father was the US man in Ireland. He was to report on the likelihood the Irish would respect neutrality [during WWII], and respect it on the side of the British. After all, you had many Irish serving with the British troops. It was a very small minority …, who were likely to befriend the Germans; some, of those men and women, were interned, [but] that's a different story. What my father found was that yes, they were respecting neutrality.
He fell out because the ambassador, actually, they didn't call him “ambassador,” but “minister,” was very much involved with Boston politics, on the Protestant side. He wanted to embarrass the Irish because of the Irish neutrality. My father was there to find evidence that they were not a threat to secrecy, pending the invasion of Normandy.
By virtue of this falling out, he had to look for another job. He got involved with the United Nations. He became the first Director of Technical Assistance in UN organizations. As a result, in 1946, we moved to Montreal, and I had to adjust.
I couldn't speak any French, despite attempts to learn. I was a minority within a minority. It spelled trouble at school. Some small kid, who had many friends, always bullied me. It was very nasty. I don't think I've ever been so frightened in my life, as I was at that time.
When my grandmother died, my mother wanted to move to Ireland. My father was travelling around the world, so it didn't really matter that much where we lived. I went to an Irish school for cramming purposes, so that I could meet the standards of boarding school in England. My father looked at the different schools and I ended up at Ampleforth, a Benedictine college, in England.
Boarding school was a huge culture shock. I mean, it's the kind of thing you see in Harry Potter; all the school houses, the sports and such. I grew to like it because I had been pretty well neglected as far as sporting activities go. This is the first time where I was able to get involved in team sports. I got as far as what they call 'the third fifteen' – the third team in rugby. That's considered the gentlemanly level, of rugby, where you apologize if you tackled somebody in a particularly messy bit of mud.
The school ran largely through the authority of the older boys over the younger boys. You can see how people abuse power, and I got very interested in things about law. There would be sons of lawyers who would point out the old legal principle against self-incrimination. Of course, these were never respected in school. You didn't have those rights in school.
GS There were probably many others willing to incriminate you.
DRM There was a lot to be learned, in the way of invention of excuses and how people switch sides. You think a person has always been on your side. As soon as they're over you, they change. You see that in yourself. Once I was given a position of authority, some of the worst aspects of delight in power took control of me. It's an amazing thing to learn about what power will do to you.
Usually, it was those who had the ability to give you punishments against those who didn't. It was their job to enforce the rules and, of course, once you're in that position of having that power, fear of appearing 'not in control' can get you to overreact.
GS Seems much like prison life.
Boarding school is a kind of a microcosm of life. When people leave, it's like they're dying. When you enter, it's like being born. It's a very interesting system. All the time, of course, you're being instructed by the monks about how to live a Christian life. It's fascinating.
GS What brought you back to this side of the Atlantic?
DRM I went to Princeton to study physics. I have to say, about Princeton, that it worked out very well for me, if not as expected. I found I couldn't really handle the math of nuclear physics in the second year. I already had trouble, with some of the mathematics I was taking, in my first year, which was second year mathematics.
At the same time, they encourage you to take things outside your discipline. I took a third year philosophy course. I wanted to get Greek philosophy. As soon as I took the course – and I really put effort into it – I realized the kind of thinking the Greeks were doing about the universe struck me as more profound than the mathematics we were doing about the physics of the world in nuclear and other advanced modern physics analysis.
They were looking at logical arguments about whether there is something or nothing, whether there's a place where there's nothing at all, and then saying, “Well, it can't be nothing, if there's a place.” The atomists and the people who argued there was being everywhere, these were really fundamental questions the science I was doing wasn't bothering with. As other people have put it, we were looking at the 'how,' but not so much at the 'why.’ We were not really getting at the 'why' and 'what' of things in the way that the Greeks did.ï¿½ That set me on a course, and when I came to graduation, I thought of going to graduate school in philosophy.
Along the way, I became attracted to journalism. You had some really profound stuff going on in the daily newspaper.
GS Was this the student daily newspaper?
DRM Yes, the “Daily Princetonian.” I decided to become a reporter for it, working my way up to being editorial chair. I had this wonderful group of radicals and it taught me a lot. They were attacking the University club system and the Bicker system, whereby, in your third year, you go into an eating club.
GS There was an eating club?
DRM Yes, an eating club where you get your meals when you're in your last two years at Princeton. It may have changed since then. In those days, you had to go through the embarrassment of having to talk to members of the different clubs. They decided whether you're somebody they want in their club or not. There was a certain pecking order of prestige in these different clubs. It can be a bit of a nasty business.
They were attacking the system. The newspaper was having quite an effect. The “Princetonian” was a bit of an “eye-opener” for me. I got interested in journalism simply for journalism's sake, while I was there. I wrote stories, and I really enjoyed controversy. I was torn between a journalistic career and a philosophy career.
I went to McGill, after Princeton, for my MA. I did well at my MA, and got a large scholarship. For those days, it was a fantastic scholarship. At McGill, I worked on the philosophy of language. I had all this experience with journalism and I had some experience seeing how opinion can be formed and manipulated by the editors of newspapers and media.
Then it was on to Oxford. I was wildly delighted for Oxford to have accepted me. I had two years there, and these were very interesting years for me. I got interested at Oxford in the philosophy of law. I was in another Bachelor's program, but the word was that this was equivalent to a Ph.D. as far as getting jobs was concerned.
It was a tough degree, at Oxford, as I was to find out. I did the examinations, at the end of the two years, and suffered a bit because I had not spent all my time on the actual curriculum. I didn't get the degree.
This is not to say that I didn't consider my years there very valuable. I did. I found that this really gave me my new interest in phenomenology. I had done my MA [thesis] on Ernst Cassirer and the phenomenology of language. It was natural from there, to go on to study Husserl and existentialism and phenomenology. From there, I went on to teaching and studying existentialism. I taught, for a year at the Institute for American Universities, at Aix-en-Provence.
I decided my bent was going to be much more in the direction of applied philosophy than pure analytical philosophy. Fortunately, I was accepted to be an instructor at the University of Toronto and to continue my Ph.D. studies.
There was a professor at Princeton … Ron Butler. He was full of enthusiasm for me and my work …. He was my teacher in third year philosophy and I really liked what he did. On the other hand, I was also busy playing poker, all night poker. I had to cut classes, as a result.
He did this thing where he offered that if we could do well on the midterm, we wouldn't have to write the final exam. That was guaranteed: the midterm mark would be our mark. I worked furiously, got a very good mark in that midterm, then ceased to come to any more classes.
GS Because you were busy playing poker?
DRM That's right. I thought this is a great deal, but he must have thought that it was totally contrary to the spirit of the whole thing. Anyway, years later, when I was going through my transcript, I discovered I had received no grade in that course. Nobody made a big fuss about it, but there was no grade. I could understand why, and didn't hold it against him.
GS But he hadn't live up to his side of the bargain.
DRM That's right. He hadn't. But then, I hadn't lived up to the implicit “my side” of the bargain, either. [Butler didn’t say we could skip class, after the mid-term, only the mid-term would be our grade.]
Butler got a job, teaching, at the University of Toronto, after Princeton. I wrote to him and he moved heaven and earth to get me a position at Toronto. I got the position and I sat in on his classes. I wanted to be sure to audit the Butler course, rather than take it for credit. It was a very interesting course.
Anyway, I did well, in that course, which I took, from him, at Toronto. I was well thought of, and I had a good opportunity to get jobs when the time for job market came in 1966. It especially appealed to me that there was a job at Carleton University, in Ottawa, which I'd heard about. I also heard good things about Carleton University. I liked the idea of there being a journalism school there because of my interest in journalism. I had worked two summers for the Montreal “Star,” by that time.
Carleton University offered me a job. There were other [schools] potentially offering me jobs, but I didn't bother. I just thought this is where I want to be, so why should I string anyone else along. I wasn't interested in playing games. I thought “This is great”!
Once at Carleton University, I started to take an interest in the local community. I got married in 1969. I began to take more interest in the world around me, and got roped into the Glebe Community Association. That was 1971.
John Leaning, a neighbour a few doors down, was really promoting the preservation of older districts in the city. I could see this was a very valuable thing. I started to get into it with him. I became president of the Glebe Community Association, and, eventually, traffic committee chair. We pushed to get the comprehensive traffic plan, which really saved the Glebe. It made the area habitable once again, a place for people to raise families.
There was a woman, Frances Bryce, a member of the Glebe community. She brought an [experienced] activist to a meeting, of the community association. I can’t recall his name, but he talked about how to battle and win public opinion.
One thing I recall him saying was, “If there's an accident in the area, exploit it. That's the time people will act to make changes in the traffic patterns. So don't miss the opportunity when something like that comes up.” His talk energized support for traffic planning measures, [which] saved the Glebe and got me thinking about propaganda, in a general way.
GS Did your interest in propaganda emerge from the combination of your experiences as a community activist and your interest in journalism?
DRM About this time, I started reading philosophy more; things like Aristotle's “Rhetoric,” and found how he had seen these kinds of things: that what influences people is a vivid example, much more than logical arguments. I started to think along these lines in my community work. I decided to bring that into my teaching by instituting a course called “Society, Values and Technology.”
Around this time somebody brought to my attention the writings of Jacques Ellul. It may be partly his "Technological Society" that got me thinking about offering a course on “Society, Values and Technology.” That's how the course actually came into being.
Reading 'Technological Society', you become aware how the corporate world makes use of innovations, new techniques, and sells their products to the public through other techniques of persuasion. 'Technological Society' is all about different techniques contributing to the development of each other.
One of Ellul’s [main ideas concerns] self-augmentation …. It’s a method, a way, of corralling public opinion, but it's become a phenomenon all on its own. Basically, self-augmentation is about (i) how techniques, ways of creating public opinion, feed off each other [synergism, congruence] to (ii) aggrandize technique, the how of managing public opinion itself. This takes you straight into the field of propaganda.
Propaganda, according to Ellul, is the attempt to useï¿½ [information], to gain power over others. That's the central idea of propaganda: the maintaining or gaining of power over others.
GS What kind of power? In the sense that a government might want one kind of power,ï¿½ for example, and a business might want another, the power to get people into their stores or to buy a brandï¿½ tube of tooth paste or whatever. It strikes me that there are different kinds of power that people might want to exert.
DRM That's right. Ellul defined propaganda in a way that allows you, in your study of propaganda, to study it in the commercial field, the political field or an ideological field.
I should go on a tangent, to talk about how Ellul. At one stage, he was a Marxist, and saw how the original Marxist ideas were perverted in favour of the simple acquisition of power by the supposed proponents of Marxism. [Lenin and Mao, for example, perverted Marx.] I became very interested in all of this.
I thought it would be wonderful if I could study with Jacques Ellul. During a crazy moment, I saw one of those advertisements for a Department of National Defence (DND) fellowship, offered for study abroad. It was $12,000, which, in those days – 1979-1980, was a lot of money.
I thought, ‘Why don't I apply for [the fellowship] on the grounds I had read a little bit of von Clausewitz, somebody who had written on war, and who saw that so much, in war, is a matter of motivating your people and undermining the motivations of the people fighting against you.’
I felt DND should really know more about propaganda because it's crucial. Not only that, but the Canadian population should know about propaganda because it's easy to lose a democracy by not paying attention to the ways in which people can manipulate mass opinion. I thought of the idea of giving a course and educating Canadians through my teaching about the power of propaganda.
I convinced DND this was actually a good idea for defending Canada, to make people more alert to the ways in which propaganda can go to work to undermine a nation, either from without or from within, through subversive propaganda. They awarded me, much to my surprise, the fellowship. I had this great delight of studying for a year with Jacques Ellul. I found him as fascinating in person as he was in his writings.
I came back, to Carleton University, and [created] a course called “Truth and Propaganda.” I found it rewarding, and students have multiplied over the years. I started out with about forty and it just kept growing until now, if I give it on TV, I might have a good two hundred and fifty or so. Generations, of students have taken the course, and I'm very pleased, with the effect the course has had. I really think that I've contributed something.
GS How did your interest in [interpersonal relations] and your philosophical search evolve, at Carleton University?
DRM In studying the media, I've come to see more and more the truth of what G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1909: the blackest of all lies is not the half-truth, as Tennyson said. The blackest, of all lies, is a statement, which is entirely a truth, but such a selection of truth as to give people a wrong impression.
My concern is to [analyze and comment on] the press, where I see that people are being misled in one way or another. I read the newspapers every day. I don't watch television, any more… ï¿½I find that too much that I want is actually accessible on the Internet, now. I can actually get TV clips on the Internet. That's where I spend a lot of my time with some of the sites such as truthout.org.
GS Do you think that, if you were a young, just starting out now, would be looking at ethics and the Internet?
DRM That's an interesting idea. I'm afraid I've become, as part of my age – 70 – I have more of this feeling that I've seen it all. You know: 'been there, done that.’ I can't really advise a young person what would be the best thing to do right now. They'd have to find their own way.
The Internet is certainly one of the great things to explore and I'm afraid that, once it gets into the area of holding real power, the powers-that-be will find a way to co-opt it -- just as they've found a way to co-opt all the other media, each introduced as some new liberating force. People gave their support to the development of each one – radio, television, and so on – in the belief of all the good that this could accomplish and then they get co-opted one after the other by commercial interests, by power interests, and by political interests.
GS I wonder how much difference there is between the commercial interests and the political interests, sometimes.
DRM There is often a divergence, but not always. For the most part, the two work in sync. You have to ask yourself about Bush's policies and how the White House affects commerce [beyond the obvious, such as Halliburton, Parsons, and so forth]. There must be a lot of static from many of the commercial centres of power and influence because of the loss of US good will in so many countries around the world. That can't be good for commerce.
GS You write, in "Propaganda," about lying and it’s fascinating, not a topic people actually think about.
DRM Lying is interesting, but public opinion is shapeable by misleading. Intention to deceive is essential to the lie, whereas one can mislead unintentionally. If the media ignore an event, did it happen? Unless, you’re directly involved, you probably don’t know anything about the event. Yet it may be essential to a decision you need to make, such as how to vote. Ignoring renders a group, a cause, or a person powerless. Media attention is almost necessary for any cause. For this reason, the media is believed to call the shots even though the media is often misleading, and not intentionally so, which makes it all the worse.
Claiming certain information is given is another form of lying by misleading. Rumours, which exist to reduce uncertainty, rise and file on presupposition. “The Prime Minister,” an opponent might claim, “is not a sheep stealer.” Nice to know, if your business involves sheep, but the claim presupposes the Prime Minister is a thief, just not of sheep. You’re misleading, without an actually telling a lie.
USA Sen. Joseph A McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in the 1950s rose to prominence on “guilt by association.” This is another form of misleading, without actually lying. Under pressure from McCarthy and his Senate Committee, the US Air Force released Lieutenant Milo Radulovich from the service, ostensibly for Communist sympathies. The elder Radulovich, a Serbian immigrant, legally in the USA, read a weekly newspaper, in his native language, for pleasure. This association was sufficient, for McCarthy, to establish Radanovich as a Communist. Lt. [Radulovich was eventually reinstated, but the damage was done.] McCarthy used this association to further his claim Communists and Communist sympathizers held important positions in the American government. Even the President was cautious about countering McCarthy.
GS Do you think there's anything our current federal government, in Canada, could learn or should learn from what you've learned over the years?
DRM Coming now to that kind of practical advice, what I want to say is that their communications should be more transparent. When people have successfully fooled the public, what they get out of it is not necessarily the good they thought they would get out of it. What's the value in doing that if in the end result, even if you're successful, you may be doing wrong?
I'm an unreformed believer in participatory democracy, as we called it back in the 60s, where you encourage citizen participation. I've seen this at the local level because I was involved in the Glebe Community Association, back in the '70s. I've seen how when you allow all the different voices to speak out in a neighbourhood you really can learn things that the planners can miss.
I'm all in favour of transparency in information, despite the fact that all these participants may be a drag to have around. Having them around is better, in the long run. That's my belief.
I would say that the kind of initiative [Prime Minister] Trudeau gave was actually a good one. After the “October Crisis,” he was honour-bound to bring in a new constitution that would give more opportunities to French Canadians in the federal civil service. He kept his promise there.
I think that greater transparency in government will pay off in the long run, even though Paul Martin, some might say, was too transparent in allowing this inquiry to go ahead which revealed the things that the Gomery Inquiry found and that brought him down. What was bad for Paul Martin might not necessarily have been bad for the country.
Paradoxically, even though the people that work for Paul Martin or for any politician may be thinking that “We've got to deceive the public in some way in order that my favourite politician will succeed,” that may not be the best thing for the country as a whole.
GS If I were to ask you the same question about the current American administration?
DRM The Bush White House went on 5 February 2003 before the United Nations Security Council and got what they wanted, which was enough support to start the war. It's not looking good in the long run, because their deceptions have now been exposed. Almost everyone knows it, except those who watch Fox News.
I think the last study was to the effect that still 40% or so believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow implicated in the 9/11 events and that he was friendly towards Bin Laden and that crowd; demonstrably false but they still believe it, despite the fact of all the widespread revelations by competent authorities that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the hoaxed-up story about the yellow cake in Niger and all the other stories.
What that means is that it's going to be difficult for that administration to have people believe if there is another incident in the future. Worse than that is the undermining of the constitution and the undermining respect for authority. I think we're heading in that direction.
When you look at the economics of the United States--if there is, as I think there will be, a real downturn in the United States' economy, that's when people will be looking for people to blame and I think that's when the Bush administration will be in real trouble. Now, that may only encourage these people to start a war with Iran because, once you're in a war, everyone rallies around the President.
Who knows what kinds of calculations or miscalculations they might want to make with respect to some kind of attack on Iran. I hear – my source is Seymour Hersh, in the “New Yorker” – he's very concerned about the Bush administration, between now and next January , getting into a war with Iran.
GS It seems fear, uncertainty, and doubt are really weapons in the hands of people who have something to hide.
DRM Yes, well, I always take it back to Aristotle who studied rhetoric and wrote the best book on the ethos, the character of the person speaking, and pathos, the emotions. These are two major things in what will get people to believe things.
You have to create the right credentials. One of the ways they do it is via fake video news releases. I don't know if you've heard about them: government departments pretend to have independent journalists interviewing government officials. There are paid for by the department concerned. It's a deception of the public.
It's also a deception that the government “accountability office” has criticized this as a form of propaganda, which is illegal in the United States. You've the Bush administration, which must enforce the law, just decide not to enforce it. They're supposed to have Congress as a check and balance but Congress seems to be very weak in trying to bring accountability to the current Bush administration. That's one of their big constitutional problems.
The executive is the one that pays the cheques. People naturally do what their paymaster says. It's hard to get things in motion unless Congress says, “No, you must do this according to law.”
GS Are you saying that legislative bodies are not standing up to executive bodies in governments?
DRM I think that's true in the United States. I don't know that that's true in Canada. I would say that we're OK as long as we have media going to work and providing the right kind of incisive investigation into what is happening in government.
I see encouraging signs, but not as much as I would like to see. I like, for example, the way the “Globe and Mail” and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) have not dropped the Mulroney thing. One hopes for a more conscientious media to help put pressure on the different branches of government to do their jobs properly.
GS I wonder why they wouldn't be conscientious. Do you think this goes back to the concentration of ownership of media?
DRM I think that back in September 2002, Canada under Chretien was not willing to go with Bush into Iraq, and you had this very powerful article written by Marie-Josse Kravis [nee Drouin], which was an unfair piece, I thought, claiming Trudeau knew how to deal with terrorists and more or less saying that Trudeau would have been with Bush on this.
I don't think that Trudeau would have, actually. The article was signed, "Marie-Josse Kravis," and originally appeared in the “Wall Street Journal.” She was identified as a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute [which she was, at one point, when using her birth name], when, in fact, she was the co-chair of a Bush Republican Party fund-raiser back in May. The article appears in September and, as recently as May, she was the co-chair of a gala [raising] over $30 million for the Republican Party. Her husband, Henry Kravis, is a billionaire and model for the movie, “Barbarians at the Gate.”
Not to mention that kind of thing is, in a way, to deceive the public because a lot of our opinion is formed based on the credentials of those who speak to us. If somebody, a know-nothing, comes and tells us about the nuclear dangers of some installation, we don't pay any attention. If somebody who has credentials, somebody who has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, comes and tells us that, we listen.
GS At least, we hope we do, unless Parliament overrules her.
DRM Yes, that's right. That's a good point.
The public needs to be properly informed as to the credentials of the speaker. Drouin didn’t lie, she misled through omission. The public needs to know the writer of an ostensibly fair op-ed isn’t a Republican Party stalwart who's obviously engaged in polemics. The public needs to know the author is not a disinterested voice of someone who is merely trying to inform them. Linking Drouin to the conservative Hudson Institute at least hints at her primary colours. What was omitted was her strong links to George W. Bush and the Republican Party, that is, her vested interests. They need to know such facts.
There you had the Asper Press [CanWest], which has backtracked, but was strongly pro-Bush at the time. Asper gave such prominence to the Drouin article in their papers – “National Post” and Ottawa “Citizen,” for example – that [Prime Minister] Chretien, being the politician he is, had an announcement just a few days later saying that he was now going to support Bush.
The Chretien release was worded in such a way that there was a lot of wiggle room. He did support Bush, not in actively putting armed forces into Iraq but doing a lot of support stuff with ships offshore. That was his craftiness. I think he understood the build-up of pressure from public opinion could really force him to do something. but he was clever enough to yield to that very quickly in a way that was not too committing but that gave those people who were pushing him hope that he would do more.
People forget. You can build up something to be very powerful and then all that pressure is gone a few weeks later. In the months later, he made it so that it wasn't something that was too unacceptable to Canadian people.
GS If you had a message to send, what would that be?
DRM What I see as important is the need to be witness to the truth. There are certain truths only you alone are able to get out. You have this wonderful role to play in the kind of Beethoven Orchestra of The World. Everyone has a role to play. My message to the world would be, “When you're in a position where you alone can supply a truth, which is uniquely yours, then go for it! Don't be afraid!”
I see the world as so much of a test of character of everybody. There are people who take the easy way, and that's a big temptation: keep your head low, don't rock the boat, and all the other cliches that want to keep you calm and tranquil.
GS On the one hand, you say, “If you have something, give it forth.” I wonder if the major problem isn’t confidence about the importance of what we, you, me, the reader, has to offer?
DRM Yes! Well, you see, that's another thing. I think people are often short on praise for what other people contribute. You know, we have this idea that only those people who achieve the pinnacle of success. Often we undervalue the contributions of people in nursing or retail clerks. We can help pull somebody out of a [horrible day or period of their live] just by being nice, instead of being snarky to somebody.
The ultimate goal for all of us is death. You have to then, in that light, ask yourself how really important is it to achieve the trappings of success, as distinct from being concerned to help others get through this often very tortuous life.
GS You've written a couple of other books, as well.
DRM Yes, the first book was more observations about journalism and about the way in which David Levine, then head of the Ottawa Hospital, was the subject of what I thought was a kind of McCarthyist outrage, that this former separatist would be heading the Ottawa Hospital. [“Separatist Betrayal or McCarthyism North?” published, in 1998, by Fernwood Books.]
My book focused on how the media were exploiting [the appointment and the commotion engulfing it]. Where the media were – the Ottawa “Citizen” and the Ottawa “Sun,” are what I had in mind. Neither publication was fair, in presenting [the issue] to the public. Each newspaper, in fact, exacerbated the tensions because it was all good, I think, to have controversy.
Now, of course, you never know the motives, of the people, who are doing this, but all I did was document the one-sidedness [of the presentation, adding] some of the ways in which I thought his right of conscience and his political beliefs should not have a part in his appointment to the Ottawa Hospital. It should be his competence, not his political affiliations or beliefs.
That point seemed to be lost on so many people, who were agitated about somebody whom they called a traitor to Canada being appointed at the Ottawa Hospital. The “Citizen” gave rein to people who were talking about traitors and what should happen to traitors, you know, [execute them]. That kind of letter would find its way into the letters columns of the “Citizen.”
I thought it was necessary to speak out against that because I think as part of living in Canada with Quebec and with the French, you need to have people who are concerned with fairness and for nobody to speak out against this would be an indication that you're not going to have any fairness with these Anglos.
I'm also interested in civil liberties. At one time, I was president of the Civil Liberties Association in the National Capital Region [in Ottawa]. It was through my association with that organization, the Civil Liberties Association of the National Capital Region, that I got encouraged to write that book.
GS You're not shy of a controversy?
DRM I guess not. I still do write letters to the newspapers. People who know me know that that's one of my traits, that is, take great joy in writing letters to newspapers. I've just had one this week about tasers. In writing that letter, I simply recalled a cartoon I had seen in the Washington “Free Press,” in the 1960s. The cartoon showed the generalissimo talking with his colonels, and there's a crumpled body, with smoke coming out of the guns of the firing squad. The generalissimo says, “Nobody denies that he, the crumpled body, had a right to protest. On the other hand, it was a drag having him around.”
Tasers provide just that kind of opportunity for police to deal with annoying, insulting demonstrators. You just taser them, and there's no mark. There's no way to confirm the act, unless there's somebody there to videotape it. That was the big mistake of the Mounties. They allowed someone to videotape [in action]. Then they said things demonstrably at odds with what you can see on the video.
That is such a wonderful thing to have because it's [clear evidence] you can't always trust the police. People need to have [something like video evidence to confront] them because there's too much blind acceptance of the word of the authorities.
I think I'm having some kind of effect on how people think about the media. That's what my students always tell me. They read my book or they listen to my lectures. They come away and say they don't see the media in the same way anymore. Before they were passive, and now they look at it actively. I think that's one of the major things I want to do: encourage students, and everybody, to develop a sensibly critical mind.
I'll be teaching the Existentialist course again. What I want to do in this course is help people try to discover what they have to offer the world. I confront them with the different writings of people who've thought deeply about life, about the world, about afterlife, and about individual paths through the world. By putting them in touch with these thinkers and by adding thoughts of my own, I hope to give people a sense of taking control over their lives--taking risks, having autonomy.
At the same time, I want to give people the sense that what’s thought to be valuable by the world isn't necessarily valuable. “To thine own self be true”, to go back to Shakespeare.
The paradox is that when you're looking for acclaim, you don't get it. When you're not looking for it, funnily enough, it comes to you. It's the old, old story, if you follow what you believe in, sooner or later, someone's going to appreciate it. You may have to wait a long time to get feedback that people really do appreciate it.
GS Other than students telling you how they appreciate your courses, can you see the effect of your thinking, your research, and your teaching being transmitted through your students into the world?
DRM Yes, actually I can. I have a very concrete example of that. Some students who worked for “Ottawa (X)Press” – they're not there – anymore, but they were passing on the same kind of ideas and doing a good job for “Ottawa (X)Press”; doing a very good job. I can think of somebody who went to the “Globe and Mail.”
My students are spread all over the place. I can see the effect. Not always, of course, some of them naturally have their own political bent, but that's all right as long as they are taking into account the kinds of considerations I think are important. The point is they arrive at a conclusion, and don’t free float for a lifetime.
GS Thank you.
DRM You're welcome.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews.
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
Ottawa-based photographer and writer.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.