Michael Ignatieff: An open letter

Dear Michael Ignatieff

As a former colleague of yours on the BBC’s Late Show in the 1990s, I want to draw your attention to a Canadian phenomenon which, though you are not yet prime minister, can be significantly remedied by your intervention. There may even be some votes in it.

You can guess what I’m referring to. It’s the top-down dumbing down of arts and culture.

Canada is a country that punches creatively above its weight. Its diversity of authors -from Margaret Attwood and Carol Shields to Josef Skvorecky, Mordecai Richler and Ying Chen – are read the world over. Its musicians are widely heard and its theatrical style is distinctive. Like Britain, Canada has nurtured a national cultural renaissance by means of an enlightened state broadcaster and modest amounts of public subsidy.

Those gentle boosters are now in jeopardy. CBC Radio has converted its classical station to pick ‘n’ mix, and its classical presentation to low populism, demolishing cultural confidence.

To cite one current example. CBC is asking listeners to choose 49 Canadian songs to send to President Obama. Michael, could you ever imagine such cultural cringe at the BBC?

Another instance: the Canada Council for the Arts is scrapping subsidy for controlled-circulation literary and music magazines. I can’t figure out the bureaucratic reasoning from afar and I should declare a tiny interest: my weekly column appears without fee on a website linked to one Canadian publication. These magazines nurture the grass roots of art. Scythe them down, and not much will grow tomorrow.

What can you do as leader of the opposition? Easy. The squeaky bums in broadcasting and arts councils (we have the same types over here) respond very swiftly to comments from an opposition leader shortly before an election. The bums don’t want to lose their seats.

One speech, Michael, that’s all it would take. One speech urging Canada to smarten up and stop dumbing down would put more heart into the arts and more arts in the world than a pack of Medicis. One word from you, and the bureaucrats will go upmarket.

Think about it. With a positive signal to Canada’s creative furnace, your Liberals would stand for innovation and enlightenment, as distinct from the numbskull Conservatives. To borrow Isaiah Berlin’s famous metaphor, you would be the fox and they the hedgehog – tomorrow’s roadkill.

Forgive this intrusion from abroad. I have no right to interfere in Canadian affairs, except to wish the best for its arts. My justification is John Donne’s: no man is an island. Canada’s arts are important. If they shrink, the world suffers. They help to define what you and I would call civilisation. Get behind them, Michael, before the election.

With best wishes


Norman Lebrecht



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  • Dear Norman Lebrecht, the dumbing down of the CBC is truly a disgrace. Will “Iggy” do anything? Who knows. But your special column dedicated to Canada’s radio demolition derby is welcome!

  • Um, the point of Berlin’s Hedgehog and Fox is not that the fox is better and the hedgehog loses.
    “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says:’ The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpreta­tion of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively,
    the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”
    Your invocation of the hedgehog/fox metaphor doesn’t really make much sense. . .
    Plus, I hope I’m misreading, but your objection to the new CBC 2 format smacks of elitism and classical music chauvinism. Is it a “dumbing down” simply because they will be playing less classical music, or do you have specific objections to the nature of the new non-classical programming?
    NL to Galen H. Brown:
    1 Um, yes, I am aware of the original meaning of the metaphor and I took the ironic liberty of reversing it.
    2 My objection is twofold. A civilised country that cannot sustain a classical radio channel is depriving its citizens of access to vital heritage. And what CBC have made of classical music is no better than a adog’s dinner. I hear from leading Canadian musicians that they are treated with contempt by the CBC levellers.

  • Thank you so much for that open letter to Michael Ignatieff and for taking an interest in Canadian culture. The Conservatives will no doubt go down in flames sooner or later, now that there is a credible alternative to them. Let’s just hope that they don’t do too much damage with their anti-culture dogma. CBC Radio? RIP! But Moses Znaimer, ever the media visionary, has filled the void with Toronto 96.3 FM’s classical music station.

  • Galen H. Brown, may I suggest you might want to tread lightly with the accusation of “elitism”, the fit-all circumstances defense strategy these days? Usually it is accompanied with its twin brother, demaguogery: the changes are brought for the benefit of ALL as opposed to servicing the few elitists -generally the group one other lobby group hopes to supplant. That alone should guarantee imunity from criticism regardless of the quality offered. How convenient!
    CBC radio 2 used to have great programs from every side of the spectrum, from “Brave New Waves” to “I Hear Music” to “Sound Advice” mourned by many. Sure any institution needs a dust up from time to time. But here, it is indeed a multi fold dumbing down as, barring few exceptions, the content has been damaged and the packaging is squarely insulting the audience intelligence at least when it comes to the reduced classical music section. NL nailed it: a culture who has no past has no future. I’ll add that classical music is anything but the fossilized art form CBC executives MM. Stursberg and Steinmetz make of it.

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