Thursday, June 09, 2005

Book Reviews: In Search of the Politically Incorrect…and What Ever Happened to Canadian Stalinists?

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, William Morrow Publisher.242 p.

Certainly, one of the gravest errors one can make in political discourse is to tell the unmitigated truth. Think back to the 1993 general election and then Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s disastrous attempt at candour. Her statement that elections were not the time for substantial discussion of public policy only confirmed to the public their perception that she was not up to the job. No amount of damage control could undue this misstep and neither Campbell nor her party ever recovered from that watershed election. In politics the bald truth is relegated to the back rooms, were we lobbyists repackage it as $250.00/hour “wisdom” for the educated and connected.

Hence, it is with clear delight that I cracked the cover of a book that not only brings us some of the most politically incorrect opinions of our young 21st century, but it does so with near unassailable scientific backing. Freakonomics is the non-fiction equivalent of melding Ralph Klein’s political sensibility with Bob Rae’s oratory – way too much brain power up to no good. It is a clear delight to read, just don’t ever let any politician quote any of it. Careers have been ended for muttering just these sorts of bon mots near an uncovered microphone.

In a refreshing stroke of fairness, this book’s opinions are equally offensive to both left and right. Take for example its most shocking thesis – that abortion reduces crime. To the right, this is a rejection of the pro-life agenda. To the left, it directly links the birthing practices of the underclass to future criminal tendencies. Just typing these words brings a mental image of MPPs Bob Runciman and Peter Kormos tripping over each other in the race to the microphone to express their mutually opposed outrage.

For our education friends, Freakonomics author Levitt gleefully spends a chapter detailing how he composed an algorithm to catch literally hundreds of Chicago area teachers red-handed fixing standardized test results for their students. Again, even Mike Harris, at his worst, could not offend so many people so quickly or so adroitly.


Red Diaper Baby – A Boyhood in the age of McCarthyism, By James Laxer, Published by Douglas & McIntyre.

This at times stranger-than-fiction memoir is the tale of the early life of prominent left wing intellectual and York University Political Science professor James Laxer. Laxer is also well known for leading the NDP waffle movement and challenging David Lewis in 1971 for the leadership of the federal NDP.

Laxer grew up near the working class enclave of Christie Pits in central Toronto during the 1950s, but as the son of a prominent paid organizer for the Communist Party of Canada, his childhood was anything but normal. Instead of attending standard summer camp, for example, Laxer attended communist summer camp, where all families had a pro-Moscow bent. During Korean War, while most Canadians cheered on the Canadian troops and their UN allies, Laxer and his family supported the North Koreans and their Chinese allies, and admits to secretly celebrating every time UN troops suffered a setback. But because of the unpopularity of the communists in Canada in the 1950s, Laxer says he knew instinctively not to share his family’s fervent beliefs and opinions with other kids, neighbours or society in general. In some ways, Laxer himself was the “enemy within” even before his 7th birthday.

As a young grade-schooler, Laxer recounts the sad story of all the children in his class being asked to tell what their father did for a living. When his turn came, Laxer, even at that early age, knew not to talk in open society about his dad’s job as a communist organizer. So he stood up in class, and claimed implausibly that he did not know what his dad did. When his mother found out about this, she wrote a scathing letter to the teacher about how “inappropriate” it was for this subject to be raised in class. Apparently, even “normal” activities were neither normal nor casual when your family is on the leading edge of Canadian Bolshevism.

Laxer also shares how powerfully he was affected in 1956 by death of Russian Dictator Joseph Stalin. He recalls openly weeping and being crushed in sadness over the loss of his “Uncle Joe.”

It is anecdotes like these that allow the reader to revisit Canada’s forgotten and in some cases deliberately ignored history from the early cold war. The twist is that we are seeing these events through the eyes of a Stalinist child who later became one of Canada’s leading leftist intellectuals.

I recommend this book for its simple humanity. This is the first and only book of Laxer`s that I can say I enjoyed. It is a simple story, directly recounted, and very touching in the way he talks about the love of his family and their self imposed exile from “normal” society. It also succeeds as a testament to an era that Canadians seem to want to forget, and the unsavoury nature of Canadian Communism – a part of our history contemporary Canadian leftists seem only too willing to forget.