Michael Ignatieff: An open lettermain
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