G. A. Cohen: 1941-2009

I have an essay about G. A. Cohen in the June issue of the Literary Review of Canada. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Gerald Allan Cohen was a product of the lost world of Canadian communism. His working-class parents were Jewish Marxists who toiled in Montreal’s garment trade. In 1945, When Cohen was four years old, they enrolled him in the Morris Winchevsky School. Morning classes were taught in English and covered conventional topics. But in the afternoon the language of instruction switched to Yiddish, and the lessons included the history of class struggle. One day in 1952 Quebec’s Red Squad raided the school, hoping to find communist literature. The political innocence of Cohen and his classmates was preserved by a quick-thinking teacher who put on a happy voice and clapped her hands as the police arrived: “Children, the Board of Health is inspecting the school and you can all go home early.” Cohen and the other delighted students ran outside, unaware they had McCarthyism to thank for their freedom.

The rest of the article is here.

Canada’s Greatest Books

What are Canada’s best 100 books? This is a question Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams are hoping to answer by polling Canadian readers. They plan to sift through the results and publish the list of those that receive the most votes as Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, a kind of sequel to their fun 2009 compilation, Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books. Readers are asked to email in their top ten favourites. “The criterion is simple,” Clare and Adams write on their Web site. “Only works of fiction and non-fiction written by Canadian authors and that involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.”

I had some important work to do when I came across the best Canadian books project—so naturally I had to compile my own top ten list on the spot. There are different ways to define best, and in my case, I decided to focus on books I not only considered important, but enjoyed reading. That meant I did not include books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, an undeniably significant book on historical grounds, but one that has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Rather than rank my top ten I’ve listed them chronologically. Here are the first five, with the rest to follow. Continue reading

Slaughter Nick for President

The people of Serbia have passionately embraced an out-of-work Canadian actor who once starred in an obscure TV show called Tropical Heat. A knock-off of Magnum P.I., Tropical Heat revolved around hero Nick Slaughter, and was broadcast in Serbia during the tumultuous final days of the Milosevic regime. The actor who played Slaughter, Rob Stewart, recently returned to Serbia to film a documentary about the show’s unlikely popularity and received a hero’s welcome:


The anticipation in Serbia had been building since March, when it was leaked to the press that Stewart would perform with a Serbian punk band at its 20th-anniversary concert. “It broke out all over the papers that Nick Slaughter was coming to Serbia,” says Stewart. “It was overwhelming.”

Stewart’s Serbian host, prominent political activist Srdja Popovic – whom Stewart had contacted through Facebook – says that after a national newspaper published a photo of him with Stewart, “within 15 minutes, I got 300 calls – everybody asking, ‘Will you introduce me to Nick Slaughter?’ and ‘I want a photo with Nick Slaughter.’ I couldn’t live my normal life.” . . . . 

What baffled the filmmakers were the emotional outpourings they found during their visit – what the Serbian newspapers dubbed Slaughtermania. “These huge guys with tears in their eyes saying, ‘You’re my hero,’” says Stewart. “It was the emotional context for these people: what they went through in the 1990s while this became their favourite show.

The whole hilarious story, complete with a guest appearance by Canada’s ambassador to Serbia, is here

World’s leading black-studies scholar arrested

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University Professor who specializes in African-American studies, has been arrested at his home on dubious charges of disorderly conduct. A statement by Gates and link to the police report are here. Some judicious comments are found in this thread on Crooked Timber (where I found out about it).

The Case for Immigration Amnesty


A sign cautioning U.S. drivers to be aware of recent arrivals from Mexico running across the highway.
A sign cautioning U.S. drivers to be aware of recent arrivals from Mexico running across the highway.


Joseph Carens is one of the world’s most interesting political theorists. I first became aware of him when I took a class in which we were assigned to read his famous essay , “Aliens and Citizens: The Case For Open Borders,” in which Carens makes the provocative argument that immigration controls should be abolished. Carens, who teaches at the University of Toronto, has made his career writing about immigration, and he often challenges deeply held assumptions about the subject that rarely receive critically examination. Even when you disagree with Carens, as I think I do on the subject of open borders, you often come away from his work feeling like you’ve learned something.

 This side of Carens is on display in a Boston Review symposium on amnesty for illegal immigrants. The symposium takes the form of an essay by Carens making the case for amnesty, followed by responses by 16 writers. Carens argues that whether someone should be grated citizenship of a country should be determined by more than purely legal considerations. It also matters how long the person has lived in that country, legally or not. He establishes his premise with the following example:

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Posner on the Corruption of Conservatism

“By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.” So writes conservative U.S. justice Richard Posner on the blog he shares with economist Gary Becker.

Commentary on Genocide Prevention


African Union troops on patrol in Darfur.
African Union troops on patrol in Darfur.

Commentary has an interesting essay on international efforts to prevent genocide in Darfur and elsewhere.  The author, Tod Lindberg, does a persuasive job rebutting many of the conservative arguments against genocide prevention. It is refreshing to see a conservative endorse the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P).  As Lindberg notes, to date the idea has “mainly been the province of liberal internationalists and human-rights groups on the Left.” However, there are some leftists who have made the mistake of thinking that because the Iraq War was misguided, military intervention as such is always wrong. Such observers often view genocide prevention through the prism of colonialism. This approach has the sad outcome, intentional or not, of giving a do-nothing approach to genocide a progressive sheen. Here’s hoping a left-wing Lindberg emerges to rebut this view also.

Canwest Death Watch

Reuters has a story about Canwest, the owner of the National Post, being on the verge of bankruptcy. It follows several similar stories in recent months, including a good one in Maclean’s by Duncan Hood that helpfully explains the different reasons for the company’s decline. One reason is mismanagement:


The bigger problem falls under the heading of “questionable acquisitions at high prices,” and the piles of borrowed money required to close those deals. Since taking over, Asper has bought up a grab bag of properties. He has launched three radio stations in the U.K., acquired four radio stations in Turkey, and bought the New Republic magazine in the U.S. Then, just a few months ago, he turned around and sold the U.K. stations for an undisclosed price, less than three years after launching them. Such flip-flops have helped contribute to a perception that management doesn’t have a long-term plan. “What can I say?” says Robert Floyd, president of R.A. Floyd Capital Management in Mississauga, Ont. “They’re not the brightest bunch of boys when it comes to buying assets.”


It turns out that Canwest is not the only television company feeling financial pain. According to a piece in The Globe and Mail, profits are down 90 percent at all the big Canadian commercial networks (Global, CTV, CITY, French-language TVA). According to the Globe, “Several factors led to the declines, including the migration of TV audiences and revenue to the Internet and to cable, and the impact of the TV writers strike last year.” In Canwest’s case, its mismanagement problem would only seem to be making a bad situation worse.

The Ignatieff Revolution

Simon Hayter, Getty Images).    

Ignatieff at the November 2006 Liberal leadership convention (credit: Simon Hayter, Getty Images).

On the occasion of Michael Ignatieff’s ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I thought I would repost a review I wrote in 2000 of The Rights Revolution. Ignatieff and his party inevitably divide people, and my own faith in him as a leader is more tempered than it once was (I would have preferred that he assume the leadership after a contest, not before). The Rights Revolution, by contrast, is a well-written and thoughtful book that deserves to be more widely appreciated. It is surprising how little the vision of Canadian political life it offers has figured in the debate about Ignatieff the politician.–A.M.

In his 1993 book Blood & Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff took a trip to LG-2 (“Le Grande Two”), a massive hydro project 1,600 kilometres north of Montreal. Ignatieff’s guide explained that the engineering project was a point of national pride for the Quebecois, but Ignatieff had a slightly different reaction. He stressed how the dam made life miserable for the equally nationalistic Cree of northern Quebec, and that its chief illustration was that “the rights of two nations are in conflict.” Ignatieff spoke on behalf of a cosmopolitan, tough-guy liberalism that was uneasy about nationalists of all stripes: “Cree and Quebecois both argue their demand for national survival in terms of cultural survival. This link between survival and self- determination is central to nationalist claims everywhere, but it deserves skeptical examination.”

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