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Sticks and stones

One is called so many things, in this line of work, including aspersions on the line of work. There are so many terms to choose from, I often wonder which would be most apt. Let us begin with the job description.

I like to think of myself as a hack journalist—the two words may be redundant, but I enjoy the euphony.

These days, however, we are known as “content providers.” This fits well with what I explain to persons met socially, who ask what I do. “I help to fill the spaces between the advertisements in the newspapers.” … “But what do you really do?” … “I told you.”

It is often well to leave it at that. Walking the streets of Ottawa I have several times been halted by what appears, at first glance, to be a total stranger. Also at second glance. I am asked, in a tone arguably aggressive, “Are you David Warren?”

“It depends. Do you like David Warren?” is my standard reply. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have given that away.)

In one case, the interrogator turned out to be a long lost cousin, last seen when we were both schoolchildren. It is hard to design a boilerplate reply that works in all circumstances.

Among the other things I’ve been called, not only in mail and over the telephone, but on the street, before or after formal introduction, are “a right-wing X,” “a right-wing Y,” “a right-wing Z,” and “Jew-lover.” I proudly admit to this last, but protest that some of the obscenities are, when literally interpreted, inconsistent with some of the other obscenities.

Sometimes I am even struck by the paradox that if I used such terms on my own adversaries, I’d be up before a couple of human rights tribunals and the Ontario Press Council.

Indeed, I was up before the latter recently without having employed terms any more controversial than “paved” and “Wal-Mart.” It used to be one could hold all kinds of opinions in newspapers without fear of prosecution, but those were the good old days.

I think “right-wing” is a fair description, however. While I gather that it is seldom intended as a compliment, north or south of the world’s longest poorly defended border, it is an accurate enough descriptor of persons who never belonged to the Communist Party.

The mysterious, spontaneous tendency of sane persons to choose seats to the right of the speaker’s chair, and of others to sit without thinking on the left, was first observed in Paris during the send-up to the Revolutionary Terror of 1793-4. Hence the modern terms “right wing” and “left wing.” And I’d have no objection to being thought sane, even by the inmates of a mental asylum.

“Conservative” is the term we use in polite society. But I have never been happy with it. “Conservative” is a panhandling word, to my mind, in the sense that it begs so many questions. Just what is it in contemporary society that one is trying to conserve? Almost everything I like requires not conservation, but restoration. One might call oneself a “restorative conservative,” thus sprouting two wings, but they’d be ostrich wings, unlikely to bear one aloft.

There is even a “Conservative” Party in Canada, fairly well-represented in the current House of Commons; but it is a foggy day in Bytown when I entirely agree with any legislation they are tabling. “I refuse to vote for those [persons],” the late Evelyn Waugh is said to have once said, of the British version of the Conservative Party. “They never set the clock back a single minute.”

I used to try “Tory” in the forlorn hope that my interlocutor might guess I was referring to the politics of some other century. Later, I tried “Jacobite” to make myself clearer. Yet even that could be misleading, for truth to tell I consider the divine right of kings to be a typically modernist innovation, incompatible with the freedom of the philosophia perennis. “Pre-Jacobite” would be better, but once again, who would understand it?

On something like Waugh’s argument, I have finally formed a personal preference for the term, “reactionary,” which has good French antecedents, going back to the 16th century. It is the term that seems best to convey a general revulsion for every trend and tendency in the political, economic, social, and spiritual development of the society around me. And especially, to the habit of conducting an argument by just flinging names.


Contact the Editor: Joel Johannesen
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