Hard Man of the Far Right

First published in Canadian Literature 156 (Spring 1998): 131-33, http://canlit.ca/reviews/man_of_the_far_right. My title for the review was “Hard Man of the Far Right,” which was meant as a mocking allusion to the Glasgow term for a street tough—“wee hard man”—but may have been understood by the book review editor in another sense; the review was published under the title of “Man of the Far Right.”

Review of David Frum, What's Right: The New Conservatism and What It Means for Canada (Toronto: Random House, 1997)

What kind of phenomenon exactly is David Frum? And what claim can he make upon the readers of this journal? For although he produces books (first Dead Right, now What's Right, a collection of articles dating from 1988 to 1995), Frum is not, in any sense that counts, a writer.

David Frum's domain is current politics, and yet he has little in common with political scientists, who reputedly feel some concern about verifying what they represent as historical facts. Frum, in contrast, reprints here a piece written in 1994 in which he complained that “Ontarians have been cheated by an NDP government that has doubled its spending in a decade.” (Does he really think the Rae government was elected to office in 1984?) And in October 1995, just before the Québec referendum, he wrote in the Financial Post that English Canadians “have calmly agreed to be ruled by national governments that the majority of English-speakers had voted against: without its Quebec seats, the Liberal Party would have spent the forty years 1953-1993 in opposition.” (Has he never heard of the Tory governments of Diefenbaker, Clark, Mulroney and Campbell, which ruled Canada for sixteen of those years, or forty percent of the total?)

Although Frum often adopts a prophetic tone, this is not a vein in which he has been uniformly successful. In September 1995, for example, he wrote that “unlike the soon to be utterly forgotten Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich ... is poised to dominate American politics for a generation.” Well, now he's got Clinton to kick around for another four years.

It's easy enough to be mistaken in that sort of way, but when Frum combines sanctimony with prophecy the results can be less amusing. In 1988 he attacked Canadian anti-apartheid campaigners in these terms: “Political morality is a morality of consequences, not intentions. You may intend to achieve a peaceful, non-racist South Africa—but if the predictable consequences of your actions is [sic] civil war and dictatorship, then you are behaving immorally.” Since he elsewhere signals his hostility to what he calls “the ANC view of South Africa,” Frum must have found Nelson Mandela's peaceful and democratic succession to power—due in large part to mounting international pressures against apartheid—a serious disappointment.

Yet if he is neither a political scientist nor altogether a prophet, Frum is more than just a journalist. Most of the pieces reprinted in What's Right belong to the familiar category of political punditry. Others, however, such as his address to the 1994 convention of the Ontario Conservative Party (which concludes with the exhortation, “You must not be intimidated. You must be of glad heart. You must not surrender. You must win”), are clearly something else. A person who serves as adviser to a political party, speaks from the rostrum at its annual convention, and then analyzes and celebrates its electoral victory in the mass media, is practising something more than traditional journalism. George F. Will pioneered in this line when, after serving in 1980 as Ronald Reagan's paid coach for his television debate with Jimmy Carter, he faked a pose of journalistic neutrality in the Newsweek column which solemnly awarded his own man the victory. But Frum is out in the open—at least since achieving prominence as a marriage-broker with his 1996 “Winds of Change” conference, in which Conrad Black and other media right-wingers, acting as shapers rather than mere analysts of Canada's political destiny, were meant to agree in closed sessions upon a plan for pushing the Conservative Party into the embrace of Preston Manning.

A means of describing Frum emerges in his own statement that “It's the job of political entrepreneurs to devise coherent messages, based in sincere conviction, and to sell them.” The message of this political entrepreneur is indeed coherent: Frum wants to eliminate welfare, medicare, equity policies and programs designed to benefit visible minorities, human rights commissions, student loans, government funding for the arts, the humanities, and public broadcasting, as well as programs in support of advanced technology, fuel efficiency, transportation, waste recycling, and exports. Government, he believes, has no business “monkeying around in the private economy”: in his view there is no other kind of economy. Frum also believes—and he shared this wisdom with Ontario's Conservative Party convention in 1994—that “The key to political courage is knowing to whom to listen and whom to ignore.” Thanks to advice of this kind, Ontario's premier has turned the legislative buildings at Queen's Park into a fortress, and his education minister, a grade 11 drop-out, shuts his door in the faces of university presidents, though not those of corporate executives interested in profiting from the privatizing of public institutions.

It may be significant that Frum's definition of the job of a political entrepreneur contains no reference to truth. He does indeed state that he's “a conservative because conservatism is true.” But like fundamentalists of all kinds, Frum finds that the possession of one large Truth absolves him from any need to give serious attention to the smaller but less simple truths that are bound up with the material realities of our social being. In 1988, for example, he scoffed at opponents of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement who warned that it would do irreparable damage to the industrial sectors of the Canadian economy. In 1995, by which time their warnings had been borne out by the slump of the Ontario and Québec economies and by falling family incomes across Canada, Frum found it expedient to blame these effects upon high taxes. If he weren't so obviously “sincere,” one might be tempted to accuse him of intellectual dishonesty.

This book is littered with parallel examples of factual errors, statistical manipulation, gross distortion, and those strategic lapses of memory that I have elsewhere termed “subtractive politicizing.” Applied to his own work, Frum's claim that “the ideas with the most power are conservative ideas” seems idiotically mistaken: in comparison with opponents such as Linda McQuaig, John Ralston Saul, John Warnock, or Maud Barlow, he is a water-spider.

But how, then, can we explain the accolades Frum receives from such American right-wingers as William F. Buckley, Jr., Peggy Noonan and George Will? The answer lies, I think, in his extremism. Where other neoconservatives call for budget cuts, Frum says that $300 billion (one-fifth of the total expenditures of the US government) should be chopped in a single day; where others propose to cut back welfare expenditures, he wants to abolish welfare. Sub-Nietzschean posturing of this sort apparently has its pleasures (the underclass resent the treatment it's getting? we'll show them ressentiment!), as well as earning the admiration of one's neoconservative peers. There may also be political benefits to it: as Frum says, “People are tired of the constant moaning they hear about the poor.... I don't think Republicans should go out of their way to be callous. But ... [i]n the current environment, being accused of callousness might even be to the party's advantage.”

There is a sense, however, in which Frum's claim that “the ideas with the most power are conservative ideas” is perfectly accurate. In John Ralston Saul's apt phrase, the man is a “courtier” of an anti-democratic corporatism—or, to be more blunt, a cat's paw of Conrad Black. There is indeed power behind his ideas. If we owe it to ourselves to expose the vacuity of David Frum's claims to moral or intellectual cogency, we also owe it to whatever sense of collectivity, community or mutual sharing we wish to sustain in this country to take him—and his backers—very seriously indeed.