27 November 2010

Talking to Canadians

For the past couple of decades, Rex Murphy has made a comfortable living by talking to mainlanders. 

What appears to catch their ear, let us not forget, is his ability to speak in subordinate clauses.  The crowd who watch his commentaries seem impressed by his use of words and sentences that, because they are lyrical, appear to be intelligent.

That is not to say they are ignorant but that Murphy is not only smart  - he uses big words, after all - but his subordinate clauses sound smart. 

At times, though, one must wonder if, after all this time, Rex continues to fool them into believing that what he says is true.

From time to time, Rex likes to talk about the place he comes from.  Like the land from which any expatriate comes from, Rex’s Newfoundland is not so much a real place with which he is intimately familiar as it is a memory distorted by distance and emotion.  

Take for example, the way he speaks about Williams’ patriotism.  It is fashionable among a certain crowd to claim for Newfoundland and Labrador some sort of Brigadoonish fairy quality that suspends the laws of nature, time and man. None but Newfoundlanders, supposedly, can understand pride of place and origin. 

This is, to put it crudely,  nothing more than crap. It is exactly what Rex claims it isn’t.  It is entirely a conceit, a fabrication, a convenient assumption that allows an otherwise ridiculous claim to appear plausible.

No successful premier could be unaware — and it is the key to those moments Thursday morning when with a trace of mist in his eye he spoke of Newfoundland’s future and the merits of her peoples. It is common to us all — this strange, sometimes extorted affection we Newfoundlanders have for our place. And therefore it was not odd that Mr. Williams could address the whole of the community, speak as he spoke, say even that “I love you all”; whereas it would be odd if, not perfectly impossible for, say, Dalton McGuinty were to attempt a like hail. The elements are not there, either in him or in Ontario. 

Those words, hastily scrawled in Williams’ own hand across the bottom of the text from which he spoke, are as bizarre in St. John’s as they would be anywhere else in the country coming from a politician.

Danny Williams did nothing if he did not bring to local politics an intensely personal quality it seldom has had. it more typically manifest in what Murphy dismisses as a periodic excess.  In truth, Williams never knew a cheap personal smear he would not make.  He seldom spoke on any disagreement except in a disagreeable way. And just as surely as Williams was perpetually bitter toward anyone, he was also quick to claim a deep personal grievance if anyone expressed an opinion contrary to his own.

In that context, Williams profession of the most intense personal affection for a raft of people he did not know is doubly odd. Coupled with the understanding that Williams spent so much of his time massaging public opinion toward him and one starts to appreciate that his “I love you all” was as impersonal as the sign-off for a television show. 

Make no mistake:  there is an ease and a friendliness in Newfoundland and Labrador that allows one to pass a complete stranger on the street and exchange pleasantries.  But what Williams’ scribbled words conveyed was more akin to what one might see on an American reality television show.

Murphy’s political obit for Danny Williams also contains some fairly obvious foolishness beyond those things.  he writes, for example, that some “boost of assertive spirit, perhaps even a touch of overcompensation, did not go astray in Newfoundland during the latter part of the ’90s.” 

Williams did not enter politics until couple of years later – he got the party leader’s job in April 2001 -  as things were clearly on the upswing after a deep recession and the cod moratorium.  Williams likes to claim the place was on the skids before he arrived but that, like many of the tales of Williams’ exploits are sheer fabrication. The gobs of cash he spent came entirely from energy deals signed before he took office in October 2003.

But when Rex writes stuff like this that you have to wonder:

Brian Peckford talked about it. Clyde Wells talked about it. Brian Tobin certainly talked about it. But it was Mr. Williams, belligerent and unwavering and finally triumphant Williams, who got it.

The “it” here is a deal to develop the Lower Churchill.  Now mainlanders are a sometimes gullible lot but even they should be fooled by last week’s announcement.  What Danny Williams announced was a vehicle for his resignation, not a way to build a hydro-electric power plant. Even the most lazy reading of a newspaper or a website about the event would show that up.

A few years ago, another Newfoundlander made a decent living by talking with Americans and exposing their abysmal knowledge of the world outside their borders.  Unlike Rex’s version of the same idea, Rick Mercer knew that the name of the prime minister he used or the events he described to the gullible Yanks were made up.

- srbp -


Ursula said...

Rex has a way of interpreting events reminiscent of the 50's, especially with reference to the behaviour that it produces .

A journalistic dinosaur,on a go-forward-basis ....

Larry said...

Well, lots to be said about Danny....but he did it his way and most people liked him and in politics you can't beat that. He succeeded by virtue of the many good battles fought and won before him & sadly he was not quick to acknowledge that. His good fortune with high energy prices and the realization of benefits negotiated by way of agreements that were groundbreaking in their day allowed Nfld to find it's way to have-province status. His strong leadership on the energy file (offshore and hydro development) has the potential for lasting benefit. Notwithstanding its new-found wealth, Newfoundland is still heavily indebted and faces demographic and social challenges that need new leadership. The province's fishery is still troubled and not fully rationalized as I read it. Premier Williams boycotted many Fed-Prov. conferences and with his preoccupation on the local, he never really contributed measurably to the national stage. The province's infrastructure has benefited from the much improved financial position and there have been a number of social policy successes during his administration. Nfld is much better off by his time in office and he gave unselfishly and likely with much personal sacrifice. Hopefully, his successor can find the balance between strong personal leadership and being more accommodating of dissent and open debate.

Ward Pike said...

I agree with one important aspect of your commentary:

Rex, like all ex-pat Newfoundlanders OR Labradorians, tends to fictionalize, romanticize, embellish the place where NL was when he left (that point in time in the course of its development).

In his mind, like all others, the NL he remembers is frozen in time and does reflect the true dynamically changing culture of Newfoundland and Labrador.

We see the same from the cartooned representation of Irish culture in the USA, Canada and Newfoundland. Imagine my shock when I first spent a fortnight vacation in the actual Republic of Ireland and found that what most they held in common with us (of Irish descent or otherwise) was a determination to get on with it: To grow and develop, to maintain their culture but not to let it stagnate or be frozen in a moment in time. The same is true for any strongly identifiable nationality in the world with a disproportionate diaspora to the resident population.

But I will not take from Rex his passion for prose nor his intellect. Nor his loyalty to this land, albeit one that doesn't exist as he remembers it.

Opinions will vary, this is just mine.

Edward Hollett said...

Thanks, Ward, for so eloquently describing the other dimension to the Brigadoon I diescribed.

You just summarised the local variety of the same thing, from the claim that the discussion is not about the past (that is all it is for its proponents) to the entirely invented notion that this is an Irish place (predominantly or otherwise).

You describe so eloquently the fiction without even realising that you are doing so.

WJM said...


Edward Hollett said...

And as I am sure Wally would agree, the tendency to believe bullshit is fact is a Newfoundland nationalist trait that doesn't taint the good peeps of Labrador, or most of the rest of Newfoundland for that matter.

BTW, Ward, aren't your crowd from Carbonear?

paulandrewrussell said...

There's a lot of talk about what a saint Danny was but I remember one walkabout when an old guy said something Danny didn't like and his 'bully boys' tried intimidating this old man. Yeah, Danny was a real good guy.

No one seems to be asking why Danny quit so suddenly. Nor does Danny say why he quit so suddenly: interesting.