A Canadian reverting to type


National Post - Wednesday September 29th, 2010

I love doing talk radio shows. There's no downside. It's fun, informal, gets your issue out there and it may even lead to a few more people reading your column.

Mostly, I get invited on to conservative shows, where the host agrees with my position. Those are a pure gift. On the few occasions I'm called on to defend a position the host disagrees with (always politely in Canada, even if through gritted teeth), it's a bit of a challenge, but still well within my comfort zone.

The most unnerving radio talk show I ever did was with a conservative host who agreed with every word I'd ever written, and my conversation with him -- a long one, almost an hour -- should have been a real ego-stroker. Trouble was, he was an extreme American conservative, and as different from Canadian conservative radio hosts as night from day.

As the show wore on -- and the host delivered himself in bullish, unnuanced terms of views he assumed I approved of --I found myself clutching the telephone receiver in high anxiety and mounting horror. My every other response seemed to start with something like, "Well, Larry, even though I believe burqas should be banned, I can't agree with you that all Muslims hate America -- I mean, lots of them came here to escape shariah law, right?" or "Well, Larry, although it has many faults, now I just wouldn't go so far as to say that universal health care is actually a communist idea ...." Well, you get the picture. And so it continued.

I was somewhat wrung out when I hung up, and I remember thinking: So this is how it feels to be a liberal. Of course, I am not a liberal -- or at least not a Canadian liberal -- but apparently, even though I refudiate almost everything Barack Obama stands for, I guess I am many American conservatives' idea of a liberal. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to stagger through an hour with Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or Glenn Beck. And so I think I have an inkling of what David Frum is experiencing nowadays.

I have been following the Frum saga from the beginning and with increasing dismay. Although his opinions often run counter to those of the ever hardening conservative mainstream, he hasn't said or written a single thing that isn't fair comment or plain common sense, nor anything that should be considered beyond the pale of rational conservative thought. Coercive political

correctness is something I always associated with the left. So I have been shocked and chagrined to see him become the favoured whipping boy of the right-wing punditocracy.

What is Frum's crime, according to his detractors? It isn't that he's no longer conservative. It's that he doesn't like the manner -- hostile, inflexible, Palinesque (you're with us or you're against us) in which conservatism is increasingly expressing itself. He'd prefer the Republicans to engage in "grown-up politics," rather than indulging in ranty, mudslinging adversarialism that does nothing to advance worthy policy alternatives to the Democratic agenda. He says, "I'm not advocating being nice to Democrats for the sake of being nice. What I'm saying is the American system depends [on] a high degree of consensus, I know it's a dirty word these days, but a high degree of consensus among elites."

What's so controversial about that? David Frum's real problem isn't that he's a traitor to the right. He's simply a Canadian reverting to type, whether he knows it or not. Prolonged, intense conflict is mother's milk to Americans. Conflict and the freedom to express extreme views is the leitmotif of their history and they have a higher tolerance for conflict in the public forum than Canadians do.

Most Canadians hate sustained partisan conflict when it is expressed with ferocity and contempt. We Canadian conservatives yearn for at least partial consensus, even the more ideological amongst us. We're okay with debate, but we hate it when it gets ugly. We prize civility and have no problem with a bit of compromise. Which explains our high tolerance for minority governments.

Frum isn't disgusted by Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin because of their politics so much as he is put off by their coarse and childish incivility, their dumbing down of their intelligence to please a simplistic base. They have no gravitas. They take pride in their refusal to compromise. So does the whole Tea Party movement. They've reduced conservatism to the lowest common intellectual denominator. The back-to-basics movement is grounded in justifiable concerns, but oh, sometimes the expression of those concerns ....

David, they don't deserve you down there. Come on home where you're understood, appreciated and respected. And where you can be a conservative and also a mensch.

bkay@videotron.ca