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My Day at the Right-Wing Think Tank

Taking in Andrew Cohen at the Fraser Institute.

By Charles Demers 20 Jun 2007 |

Charles Demers is a regular contributor to Tyee books.

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Gordon Campbell an Andrew Cohen fan.
  • The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are
  • Andrew Cohen
  • McClelland and Stewart (2007)

If I were the author of fiction, and wanted to use all my creativity to describe an early-afternoon visit to a right-wing think tank, I would avoid certain flourishes that might make me seem like an agitprop-writing leftist hack.

My characters, for instance, wouldn't have to walk through a Lexus dealership to get to their offices. There would also be no wholesomely pretty interns in tight, perky sweaters saying things like "In class, I always sit at the front, but at these kinds of things I always sit in the back"; nor any acne-scarred post-adolescents with hair gelled into hard, un-ironic side parts. And of course, there'd be no framed editorial cartoons making light of the travails of Rwandan babies.

Yup, in my great Canadian novel, I would create right-wingers who were more than two-dimensional straw men. But this piece isn't fiction, so I don't have that luxury. I really had to go to the Fraser Institute, to hear author and columnist Andrew "Not Coyne" Cohen speak on his new book The Unfinished Canadian, and so I have a duty to report all of these hackneyed, bewilderingly clichéd things as true.

I also have to say (as I never would if I had any choice in the matter) that when I asked after the bathroom, I was directed to "keep to the right." For real. So while my beef with the Fraser Institute has historically been that the policies that they promote are, for most Canadians, a kick in the ass, my problem this time was that their whole scene was far too on-the-nose.

From predictable to abjectly disgraced

While the rest of those attending the event grazed at the lunch table, I milled around the small hall in which Cohen would speak. Alongside the framed editorial cartoons was a bizarre Gradgrindian wooden engraving on the virtues of neo-Utilitarianisn.


On the opposite wall (as well as on the walls of the office corridors) were framed photos of various notable right-wingers, from the predictable (Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman) to the mildly amusing (Gerald Ford) to the abjectly disgraced (Mike Harris, Conrad Black).

Behind the speaker's podium was what looked to be a homemade white-and-navy Fraser Institute banner. The set-up actually resembled the weekly Trotskyist forums I used to attend as a teenager -- meetings I was reminded of later when Cohen told me not to "read anything important into" the fact that he made an appearance at this particular think tank: "They were kind enough to offer me a venue. I would speak for the Communist League."

Cohen was introduced by Martin Collacott, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, whom I'll call "The Rambler" -- different from Kenny Rogers' Gambler in that he clearly doesn't "know when to walk away," at least from a microphone.

Collacott went to great lengths to explain how immigration and diversity make us "more interesting" before he gets to his "however" -- we "don't want to wake up like Europe and find that it hasn't worked." For these guys, the French suburb rebellions might as well have happened in Coquitlam.

Conservative of a different stripe

When Cohen arrived at the podium, I worried the day's parade of caricatures was to continue. In his light tan suit, Cohen looked like a salesman from a world where the South won the Civil War. But it was soon clear that while he is a conservative, his is conservatism of a much more thoughtful, considered and intelligent stripe than that of his hosts.

That's not to say that Cohen's remarks, or his book, are free of offense. His blithe disinterest in the aboriginal impact on Canadian culture -- "It wasn't part of my conception," -- is dispiriting (particularly given the subject of his book, which is subtitled The People We Are). And when he questions the value of Canada's rescue mission during last summer's Israeli war in Lebanon on the basis of the evacuees' "most thin and shallow of ties to Canada," I personally think that he enters the realm of the obscene.

Linda McQuaig has also preemptively refuted many of his arguments about anti-Americanism amongst Canadians and our relation to US military power in her recent book, Holding the Bully's Coat, which mentions Cohen by name.

Nevertheless, Cohen is concerned with reinvigorating and nurturing the national commons and the very civic institutions that the Fraser Institute, with its Thatcherite ethos ("[T]here is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."), is out to dismantle. So whatever my political disagreements with his book-- and they are innumerable -- I cannot dismiss his essay on grounds of insincerity, illogic or lack of intelligence.

Canadians, hyphen free

After his speech, Cohen was handed the Fraser Institute's signature gift, an Adam Smith necktie (there're those caricatures again!). He held a quick book-signing session before slipping out to a waffle shop around the corner, where I joined him and his publicist for tea.

Cohen is affable, quick with anecdotes (a friend interviewed John Kenneth Galbraith, realized afterwards that he caught none of it on tape, and the Affluent Society author gave him a do-over -- now how's that for Keynesian generosity, Michael Walker?), and excited that we both use a Moleskine for note-taking. But at no point does he light up more than when I explain that my fiancée, from a Cantonese-speaking family in English-speaking Toronto, also speaks perfect French. He's ecstatic; it seems my future wife might just be Cohen's "Future Canadian."

His enthusiasm tempers my impatience with his statements. Specifically, his nation-building "hope that we would get beyond the hyphen" in our identity-making (sorry for hyphenating that) I find troublesome. Too often, "losing the hyphen" means we all become Anglos; and in that scheme, those of us with parents and grandparents who came as strangers to English, or those who stay tanned in the winter, will always be second rung.

At no point, though, did I doubt that Cohen speaks, and writes, with anything but good faith and consideration. And those are qualities in short supply, and not only at the Fraser Institute. Cohen is a nuanced conservative worthy of the great Canadian novel, whoever ends up writing it, and in whatever language.

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