Giving thanks for civil discourse

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Oct 09 2011.   Stephen Scharper

Starting in 1578, when British explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated a thanksgiving meal in Newfoundland for a safe but unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage, a day of Thanksgiving has been a feature of the Canadian social fabric.

While the rationale behind Thanksgiving has changed over the centuries, it has always entailed gratitude for some feature of the undulating Canadian mosaic.

This Thanksgiving, we have two reasons to be especially grateful — 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Massey Lecture series, and the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

As CBC Ideas producer Bernie Lucht, the wise midwife to many Massey Lectures, noted during the Massey Lecture kickoff reception in Toronto last week, the CBC was founded in 1932 by the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett, ripening into a Crown corporation three years later.

In establishing the CBC, the prime minister claimed that “the country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources. Without such control, broadcasting can never be the agency by which national consciousness may be fostered.”

A more pithy description was provided by Graham Spry, co-founder of the Canadian Radio League: “The state, or the United States.”

Commissioned by the CBC in 1961, the Massey Lectures were named for governor general Vincent Massey, who in 1949 headed a comprehensive royal commission survey of science, literature, the arts and broadcasting in Canada. The ensuing lecture series aimed to invite a well-known scholar to undertake an original research project, distill it into a series of half-hour radio broadcasts, and render it digestible for the general public.

Over the past five decades, the series has featured some of the most fertile minds and spirits north of the 49th parallel and beyond, including Northrup Frye, Margaret Atwood, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, technology scholar Ursula Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and theologian (and, happily, my thesis supervisor) Gregory Baum. (In celebration of its 50th birthday, all of the Massey Lectures, save one, are being made available for audio on-demand streaming: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/masseys/)

Today, the CBC Massey Lectures represent the premier collective intellectual event in Canada, the collaborative fruit of CBC Radio, the House of Anansi Press and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The lectures are sprinkled across university campuses in five cities across Canada, broadcast on CBC Radio One, and simultaneously published by House of Anansi. (This year’s lectures, entitled Winter: Five Windows on the Season, are provided by celebrated New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik.)

When speaking to colleagues in the United States about the Massey Lectures, they often marvel at such a nation-wide intellectual undertaking, reminding me that nothing like this exists south of the border. The Massey Lectures, along with the CBC which commissioned them, are a unique treasure, the harvest of a venerable and, sadly, threatened tradition of intelligent, civil discourse within a national, rather than a primarily commercial, context.

Both the CBC, with its historically insightful documentaries and series programming, such asIdeas and Tapestry, and the Massey Lecture series, with its commitment to publicly accessible scholarship, are not ancillary, but central, to a vibrant Canadian democracy.

As Jurgen Habermas, the famed social theorist linking public discourse and democracy, has argued, if we allow our lives to be “colonized” solely by economic interests, technological concerns and a managerial mindset, we lose the suppleness of spirit and the breadth of thinking to allow the conversation of democracy to continue.

During the current media moment, especially in the U.S., such respectful discourse has become constrained. The rise of a belligerent, deeply partisan Fox network, and the phenomena of “hate radio,” which unabashedly celebrates disdain for people who disagree with the “shock jock,” pose not simply a problem for the media. They present a serious problem for democracy.

That is why this Thanksgiving I give thanks for the long and rich legacies of both the CBC and the Massey Lectures. They remind us that democracy, civility, thoughtfulness, and national identity are not only cousins, but rare and precious guests, who should all be accorded a place of honour at our Thanksgiving feast.

Please pass the mashed potatoes and turn up the CBC; I believe winter is coming on.

Stephen Bede Scharper, a senior fellow of Massey College, is co-editor of The Natural City, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

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