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Notes on my way to a vacation
I’m leaving this weekend for a short vacation. I’ll be back the first week of June, and plan to write for you through the summer. I’m cross with myself for not having sent you something hefty this week. Partly I was working on logistical stuff. Partly I’m trying to line up some ambitious projects for the summer.
Let me leave you with a reading and listening list to tide you over.
What Poilievre is up to
We’re in an odd world where most of the journalistic coverage of Pierre Poilievre is critical, but he might yet become Prime Minister. The week’s big Abacus poll suggests this may simply be because more and more people are done with Justin Trudeau. But we’re still missing a theory of Pierre Poilievre. Since Shannon Proudfoot’s profile of him for a prominent food magazine last year (note: Shannon didn’t write or like the headline), there’ve actually been fewer attempts to figure the guy out as he gets closer to an election.
Here’s one thing to chew on. In early 2022, two weeks after Poilievre announced his candidacy for the Conservative leadership, this essay appeared in The Hub, a good online journal of mostly conservative-leaning opinion. It was by Ben Woodfinden, “a doctoral candidate and political theorist at McGill University.” Woodfinden has since got hired as Poilievre’s communications director, which suggests that if there’s anyone who thought Woodfinden had Poilievre figured out, it’s Poilievre.
What did he write? Woodfinden’s essay noted that Poilievre had already been talking about “gatekeepers” who make the rules that stifle initiative and progress for ordinary people. He encouraged Poilievre to keep going. The “gatekeeper” talk could appeal to a few different corners of today’s conservative movement — small-government conservatives, populists and new Canadians who feel frustrated in their attempts to get ahead. Woodfinden writes:
“The elites in this message are essentially political elites whose actions hold back the so-called ‘little guy’—ordinary Canadians who just want to own a home and make a living. There is undoubtedly something of a populist moment in the Canadian right at the moment, and this is a particular framing that can resonate with the Tory base whilst not giving in to the darker and more sinister populist temptation.
“Put all this together, and Poilievre may have the makings of a perfect storm message. It scratches the itch of different parts of the conservative coalition, and it has the potential makings of a winning electoral coalition that could propel the Poilievre-led Conservatives to government. Whilst appealing to both small government and populist types in the conservative movement, it also potentially offers a populist message that appeals to people who feel left behind or screwed over in Canada today, with ire aimed at a clique of gatekeepers who frustrate the goals and aspirations of ordinary Canadians.”
I’ll let you read the rest if you like. Woodfinden’s essay is here. Not having written it I offer no warranty for it. But I’ve always found it worthwhile to consider what politicians think they’re doing, rather than just what their worst critics think they’re doing. Maybe this piece will be illuminating.
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Sullivan at Brookings
A figure in the Trudeau government was talking to reporters the other day and mentioned “Jake Sullivan’s Brookings speech.” Blank stares in return. “You haven’t read Jake Sullivan’s Brookings speech?” the government person said. I hate to feel like I’ve been missing out, so I hurried to read Jake Sullivan’s Brookings speech, from late April. And now you can too.
It’s an interesting document. Sullivan is Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor. As such, he holds the office once occupied by Kissinger, Brzezinski, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Having the title is, as the names suggest, no guarantee of being right, but it imposes an obligation to think about the moment.
Sullivan was at the Brookings Institution to talk about what the Biden administration is trying to do in a complex and chaotic world. It’s mostly a speech about trade policy, and Sullivan opens by apologizing for the apparent error in casting. He’s a lawyer who spent much of his career at State. Money isn’t particularly his bailiwick. Except that these days, everything is about everything.
Biden is faced with “four fundamental challenges,” Sullivan said.
First, “America’s industrial base had been hollowed out.”
Second, “a new environment defined by geopolitical and security competition.” Meaning, mostly, China.
Third, “an accelerating climate crisis and the urgent need for a just and efficient energy transition.” Understandably, a lot of people think climate action will undermine employment. Biden’s job, Sullivan said, is to convince them otherwise by showing them otherwise.
Fourth, “we faced the challenge of inequality and its damage to democracy.” Trade-related growth meant large populations were left out.
What a mess. Biden’s answer? “[T]o restore an economic mentality that champions building. And that is the core of our economic approach. To build. To build capacity, to build resilience, to build inclusiveness, at home and with partners abroad.”
This means re-establishing a domestic U.S. industrial base, but not only that. “Building our domestic capacity is the starting point. But the effort extends beyond our borders. And this brings me to the second step in our strategy: working with our partners to ensure they are building capacity, resilience, and inclusiveness, too.”
In this context, Sullivan mentioned the Biden-Trudeau task force on North American energy, which your humble correspondent has been nearly the only reporter in Ottawa to write about.
So much of this is about China — as an economic challenge and a global hegemonic rival — and the parts of Sullivan’s speech that have received the most notice have to do with China. Here, this heir to Kissinger and Brzezinski sets out to de-escalate what has been an increasingly heated competitive and even confrontational relationship:
“[W]e are for de-risking and diversifying, not decoupling…. We are not cutting off trade. In fact, the United States continues to have a very substantial trade and investment relationship with China. Bilateral trade between the United States and China set a new record last year… We are not looking for confrontation or conflict. We’re looking to manage competition responsibly and seeking to work together with China where we can.”
Here too, it’s Sullivan’s speech, not mine. Take or leave what you like from it. But since so much of Canada’s foreign and economic policy is, of necessity, either a reaction to U.S. policy or an imitation of it, I figure it can’t hurt to go to the horse’s mouth.
It’s not actually required reading in Trudeau government circles, by the way. Catching up with an old acquaintance in the civil service, I asked whether they’d read Jake Sullivan’s Brookings speech. “Jake Sullivan gave a Brookings speech?” they said. I felt better about having missed it.
Incidentally: imagine if speeches of comparable scale and complexity were as common a feature of Canadian politics. They used to be, you know. Not that long ago. People keep trying to explain to me why such things are impossible now, and I have a hard time believing it.
On the ground in Ukraine
I want to recommend you read, and consider subscribing to, Tim Mak’s new newsletter, The Counteroffensive:
Mak is a Canadian-born reporter who was, until recently, at National Public Radio in the U.S., where he’s been reporting from Ukraine on Vladimir Putin’s evil and stupid invasion. NPR laid him off so he has hung out his Substack shingle. As the title of his newsletter suggests, he’s going to cover the Ukrainian counteroffensive designed to push the Russian army out. It will be a historic effort with no guarantee of success. I’m counting on Mak to tell me what it’s like to be there.
The business of books
I’ll tell you straight, I thought I was done writing for Ken Whyte, who was my editor at Saturday Night (kids, ask your parents), the National Post and Maclean’s. But now, as the president of Sutherland House publishers, he roped me in to write a short book about the Freedom Convoy. (HAVE I MENTIONED I WROTE A BOOK? READ MORE HERE.)
He also has his own newsletter, which is free, although you have to sit through exhortations to subscribe to Sutherland Quarterly. It’s about book publishing in Canada, and it’s superb. The latest instalment features Ken reporting from a U.S. publishing conference, a report from a strange land where governments aren’t much help to publishers. Ken comes away with lessons for our own publishing industry, which isn’t well despite all the help:
When the Post launched, Scott Feschuk and I slowly realized Whyte wasn’t writing much for the new paper. We finally sent the boss an email urging him to write more often. Ken wrote back and told us to stop sucking up to the boss. I haven’t asked Scott, but I assume he’s as happy to be reading more Ken Whyte as I am.
Three of the best albums I’ve heard lately:
Feist, Multitudes (Polydor)
I was a dissenter when the singer from Amherst, NS hit it big nearly 20 years ago. I thought she had a pleasant but unremarkable voice and fronted a pleasant but unremarkable band. I must now go back and reconsider, because I find her new album — workshopped in Hamburg during the immediate post-COVID months of 2021 — shockingly beautiful. I’ll spare you detailed analysis. I’m still no kind of authority on Feist’s music. But Borrow Trouble, in the YouTube video above, is representative, and I find myself fascinated as I listen to it again.
Artemis, In Real Time (Blue Note)
Bands that begin as somebody else’s idea don’t always end well. Artemis was conceived as an all-women jazz supergroup for a jazz festival. There was a first album, on Blue Note. There was no reason to expect Artemis to last long. But things started to go Artemis’s way. The members’ musical level is very high. A natural leader emerged — pianist Renee Rosnes, born in Regina and raised in Vancouver, but resident for many years in New York City. And after a few adjustments to the personnel, this new album shows Artemis becoming an important band in contemporary jazz.
The emphasis in the second album is on texture, compositional structure, and ensemble balance. Which means I’m left wishing the soloists had more chances to show off. They’re formidable soloists, including Nanaimo-born trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and the current moment’s rising-star tenor saxophonist, Nicole Glover. Allison Miller, in her tasteful and judicious manner, remains an absolutely astonishing drummer. I’m aware that these are not big names outside jazz circles. They should be. It’s a dynamite band, here only beginning to fulfil its potential.
Bruce Cockburn, O Sun O Moon (Linus/ True North)
When you’re turning 78 and you’ve made great albums for 50 years, nobody would mind if you mailed one in, but this isn’t that. Cockburn’s latest is a gorgeous revisiting of his longstanding themes — religious faith, politics, the human condition and his own — and I’ve found it tremendously rewarding.
Two songs reflect a tremendously unfashionable generosity I find inspiring. “Orders” is about the Second Commandment: “The one who lets his demons win/ The one we think we’re better than/ A challenge great - as I recall/ Our orders said to love them all.” Us All is in a similar vein: “Here we are, faced with choice/ Shutters and walls or open embrace/ Like it or not, the human race/ Is us all.”
See you in June.