Responses on Public Intellectuals

I want to thank everyone who responded to my open letter to my son on public intellectuals. I include three that significantly contribute to the discussion.


  1. Michiel Horn

Thanks, Howard, you made me think. As the historian of one group who might be described as public intellectuals, the League for Social Reconstruction — you mention Frank Scott, Frank Underhill and David Lewis; I would add Eugene Forsey, King Gordon, George Grube, Eric Havelock, Escott Reid, Gregory Vlastos among others — and briefly an adherent of another, the University League for Social Reform. I found your exposition fascinating.

Were I to write a comprehensive critique, I would note that the rootedness of Canadian intellectuals in the parliamentary system made a real difference. This contributed to the absence of anything like a McCarthyite witch-hunt in the universities. (There was something like it in the federal public service and the National Film Board, aimed at possible communists, but even more at homosexuals or bisexuals, believed to be vulnerable to blackmail — John Holmes and Douglas LePan come readily to mind — but it was carried on discreetly.) The reasons for the differences between Canada and the US with respect to this matter I’ve listed in my book Academic Freedom in Canada: A History, pp. 217-8, and I won’t repeat them here, except for my final point: “The most important reason for the absence of a anticommunist witch-hunt in Canadian universities was a lack of real or apprehended witches to be hunted.” Even the dismissal of the biochemist George Hunter from the University of Alberta in 1949 was probably less for his opinions, which were well left of centre, than for his troubled relations with the university’s president and with some of his colleagues (pp. 195-203).

Enough! I have other things to do today. Again, thanks!

  1. Peter Warrian

A Letter to Howard

Well done as a statement and characterization of the CUCND/SUPA student activist and disarmament generation.

The “1968-ers” next generation of student activists, in whose leadership I shared, was significantly different. While Universal Access to Education was a major thrust of the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) in my time as President 1968-69, it was soon overwhelmed by the media drama and immediacy of the Anti-Vietnam protests. This came to dominate all else and Americanized much of the rhetoric and politics of the student movement in Canada. It also made a single issue protest into a romantic metaphor for social “revolution”. I thought then, as now, that it was ultimately a distraction from the challenge of social reform.  The hard work of the community organizing wing of SUPA ultimately withered as the energies of the movement returned to campuses, with the residual being absorbed into government programmes like the Company of Young Canadians (CYC).

From 1968 to 1973, the movement succeeded in forcing US withdrawal from Vietnam, but then imploded into ideological and counter-cultural splinter groups. For the latter, the public and the intellectual were irrelevant. The social reform leadership, for the most part, did not go into academic life. Nor did they follow the previous generation into the CBC or CYC. A large faction entered the labour movement, without the “Intellectuals going to the Masses” motif. In following this path, the Canadian 68ers were very different than their US counterparts.

Former student activists had a major impact in the labour movement in the UAW, USWA and CUPE, in moving CLC and NDP policy and campaigns towards a much more nationalist and interventionist policy from the 1976 CLC Convention onwards. However, Canadian Left intellectual currents have never been able to successfully resolve the inherent challenges, if not contradictions, in academic, union, community and electoral politics. As a result, the only unitary project of the Left is Healthcare. While we still have unions and there is, thankfully, collective bargaining, there is no Labour Movement in any sense in which there was when I joined in.

Without new intellectual currents, social media and forums, the cycle will only repeat itself.

  1. Jeremy Adelman: An Open Letter to my Father:

This morning I drove through the frozen exurban New Jersey dawn to get my son to a chess tournament knowing that a letter awaited me – open no less – from my father. As I had no time to read it before my own fatherly task was done, it had to wait till I got home. In the meantime, my familiarity with a certain authority voice that any of your readers will surely recognize was already ringing in my ears.

The letter isn’t actually about me. Thank God. It’s aimed at someone else, though it does address a book I am writing about thinkers and the global public sphere.

I sent you Greif’s essay because I thought it a fascinating glimpse into how Partisan Review is being remembered several generations removed as an icon for a particular moment in intellectual history. And as a somewhat nostalgic view of the intellectual in history.

Your issue is the national perspective and the role of intellectuals in giving it shape – or speaking fdor it, even when they don’t realize they are.   This is something Greif does not interrogate and you are right to cast the spotlight on it.

Your reaction to Greif’s Americanist voice – the hubris, the presumption about the marketplace, the absent planet (except insofar as Europe is a background for recycling American exceptionalism myths – which run through Partisan Review, and Greif, like lifeblood) – is a reminder that Americans have a distinctive voice. Some would say aversively imperial. Others are jealous of the bravura and confident ability to speak in universals as if everyone shared them. For those misfortunate enough not to share these universals, their inability to grasp the essential wisdom of Americana helps explain, well, their misfortunes. One has to admire the circularity.

Canadians have often found themselves uncomfortably entangled in jealousy and derision. This is what happens when you are made aware of your location by being on the margins of power. It’s what happens when you grow up on McLuhan, or Creighton, or Atwood.

But it’s important to remind ourselves that the national perspective everywhere had its moment, which correlates with the rise and fall of Partisan Review and the Canadian Forum (which is what we had around the house, along with that impressive pile of NYRB’s and Commentary before it lurched rightwards.) It also correlates with the welfare state, as you note in your letter, that cause which so mobilized generations of Canadians and their own understanding of justice. Americans’ version of the welfare state was anemic, of course. Americans are still, unbelievably, trying to make sure people have access to a decent doctor; south of the border, it was the struggle for civil rights that was more electrifying. More heroic. More tragic. Ongoing.

That national perspective came apart everywhere. Not always with the same speed, or for exactly the same reasons. But it came. The French have been grappling with it, and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders the issue is burning a white flame in the public sphere; what do you do when 10% of your population is Muslim and many of them living in squalid conditions? The 1980s was not just a splintering of the national readership; it was the demise of the very integrative concept that was once attached to the nation and its conveyer, the welfare state: society. Nation. State. Society. These were the three keywords for a style of mobilization, collective imagination, and policymaking for the era that ran from the horror of World War One to 1979. (In case you are wondering why I choose that date, the Iranian Revolution, Trudeau’s defeat to the risible but absolutely decent Joe Clark, Thatcher’s victory in Britain, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and I’ll throw in the Sandinista Revolution, too because it was also important to me personally, were elements of a fundamental unhinging of the 20th century).

We didn’t know it at the time, but an implicit coalition of intellectuals and Bay St. market-nichers plunged forth to challenge the idea of an integrated “society.” In its place came disaggregated forms. What became called “identity politics” was one expression of the dismantling of the social. I remember Uncle Stan railing about the new Toronto street signs labeling neighbourhoods as if they needed baptizing; Stan was furious because he just wanted Toronto to be a city, a polis, not some pastiche of invented micro-communities. But perhaps the most important erosive force was the redefinition of citizens as consumers. It’s not surprising then that the implosion of the Liberal Party – and the eclipse of our poster of the engagé thinker, Pierre Trudeau – coincided with this basic shift. When I started studying political economy at the University of Toronto in that fateful 1979, we all read George Grant (how could you leave him off the list????), Trudeau, Levesque, Porter’s Vertical Mosaic. (My own quarry was Harold Innis). But what we did not realize was that while we debated the national question and campaigned for Ed Broadbent, what was bubbling underneath was: what’s English Canada?

Once it’s no longer the remaindered space between American chest-thumpers to the south and joyous “sovereingtists” to the east (or west, if you were from the Maritimes), what is English Canada?

Is there such a thing as a national perspective in the dawning, post-national, age?

I can’t speak for your other children. But I suspect they experienced (and still do?) a variation of my own response, which was not to resolve the question. I left; though it was always my goal, I never returned. Now, I look at Canada from its diaspora. Yes, Canada has its own disapora. And it’s actually large. For instance, as often as I can, I go to see the Toronto Maple Leafs when they play in New York or in New Jersey. (And it always feels weird that I have seen “my” team play in Madison Square Gardens – which celebrates itself, in very American argot, as “the most famous arena in the world” — but never in its fancy new home, the “ACC;” “my Leafs” will always belong to Carlton St. and never be known by some mediatized acronym.) The arena stands are full of displaced Torontonians all wearing, as I do, Leafs sweaters. There is no team in the NHL with such a vast diasporic following; it keeps the two Florida franchises alive, even in our collective misery as we watch one more season wind down in a pathetic display of mismanagement. The point about the Canadian diasporic perspective is that I see the margins from its own margins. And I am not alone. Where do these diasporic voices fit into the national conversation?

Also, as a historian, I think in terms of phases or periodization. What was “Canada” from the 30s to the 80s is not what it was before, when, to be an intellectual you often had to leave – Innis went to Chicago, many went to Britain. And it was not what came after, in which many also left. Me included. Shon, Eric, and Rachel, too. (Eric did go back though one has to wonder what would have happened if he’d decided to stay at the University of Michigan).

The point about being uprooted is that we came at the tail end of the national moment. We witnessed its coming apart, and so could never quite share that same attachment to Bob Fulford and Hart House; my memory of 1967 is of some weird buildings in Montreal. I don’t think my siblings recall it at all. Gordon Lightfoot was never my music. Tommy Douglas was a secular saint. There was something ironic to it all because, though we came late to the party when all the best food was gone, there was this thing called “Canadian Studies” that was taking off. In retrospect, that was unfortunate bad timing; a Canadian foible, I guess, to be a little out of synch.

We came at the end of one conversation and were around for the beginnings of a new one, though we did not know it. Such is the Cunning of History, no doubt.

When you say, “That would not be Canadian” at the end of your letter to me, I know what you mean. I know what you are saying to Greif. I agree with you; Greif has no sense of place in the world.

But what do those words – “be Canadian” – mean to those who came at the end of the national debates and conversations about being, not to mention that margins of a margin? Not the same for your generation as ours; not the same from your location from ours. I suspect that Daniel and Gabriel would probably add that to be Canadian feels different in BC than in Toronto. But I am not sure.

It can be brutal to lack certainty in a global age that rewards conviction and celebrates the mindless confidence of the “entrepreneurial” age, when innovation has eclipsed insights. So: there’s despair about the future of intellectuals, the public sphere, the relevance of ideas. But lest we get too caught up in the self-serving drama of intellectuals who populate the public sphere and then use it to bemoan its irrelevance, let me conclude with a comment from the margins about the margins. Our words still matter. A lot. Last year, Ken Dryden sent me a special edition of the Toronto Star that he’d edited for Canada Day. He and I had been talking on and off about the meanings of the future. His curated newspaper was a fascinating mosaic, horizontal, not vertical. I remember the words that rang out from the chorus of Canadians whom he profiled, from P K Subban to Margaret Atwood. If Canadians had a vocabulary of themselves, it was an amalgam of new and old: diversity, openness, and fairness. Noble words. I like them. Maybe they came from the accumulation of arguments about what it means to “be Canadian” in the national, and post-national, age. Either way, I wish that others used them as often as Canadians do, that one does not have to “be Canadian” to value them.

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