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David Warren: An ode to The Idler, Canada’s eccentric literary conservative magazine

Commentary

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, an eloquent voice for the Old Tories, came into being around 1820 when Mr. Blackwood fired the rather hopeless editors and took charge of the monthly himself. “The Maga,” as it came to be known, was meant explicitly to compete with the Edinburgh Review—the darling of the Whig establishment, which seemed to have been in power forever.

“The Maga” did not waste time; it promptly set about making itself obnoxious, and winning the outrage of respectable, Whiggish intellectuals in London and elsewhere. “Christopher North,” the nominal, pseudonymous editor (he was more formally the professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh) said this about Francis Jeffrey, his illustrious Review rival editor: “He hates me, no doubt, in a small toothy way, as a rat hates a terrier.”

It was with a similar desire to be naughty and offensive, and perhaps also sophisticated, and spiritually Tory in the face of Canada’s perpetual “Liberal and Progressive” elites, that The Idler was founded at the end of 1984. It took its name from the periodical essay of Samuel Johnson, and by a crazy coincidence, the presses rolled on our first issue on the 200th anniversary of Dr. Johnson’s death, precisely to the minute. (This we realized only several weeks later.)

This attitude was clinched by our motto, “For those who read.” Note that it was not for those who can read, for we were in general opposition to literacy crusades, as, instinctively, to every other “good cause.” We once described the ideal Idler reader as “a sprightly, octogenarian spinster with a drinking problem, and an ability to conceal it.”

It was to be a magazine of elevated general interest, as opposed to the despicable tabloids. We—myself and the few co-conspirators—wished to address that tiny minority of Canadians with functioning minds. These co-conspirators included people like Eric McLuhan, Paul Wilson, George Jonas, Ian Hunter, Danielle Crittenden, and artists Paul Barker and Charles Jaffe. David Frum, Andrew Coyne, Douglas Cooper, Patricia Pearson, and Barbara Amiel also graced our pages.

I was the founder and would be the first editor. I felt I had the arrogance needed for the job.

I had spent much of my life outside the country and recently returned to it from Britain and the Far East. I had left Canada when I dropped out of high school because there seemed no chance that a person of untrammelled spirit could earn a living in Canadian publishing or journalism. Canada was, as Frum wrote in an early issue of The Idler, “a country where there is one side to every question.”

But there were several young people, and possibly many, with some literary talent, kicking around in the shadows, who lacked a literary outlet. These could perhaps be co-opted. (Dr. Johnson: “Much can be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.”)

The notion of publishing non-Canadians also occurred to me. The idea of not publishing the A.B.C. of official CanLit (it would be invidious to name them) further appealed.

We provided elegant 18th-century design, fine but not precious typography, tastefully dangerous uncaptioned drawings, shrewd editorial judgement, and crisp wit. I hoped this would win friends and influence people over the next century or so.

We would later be described as an “elegant, brilliant and often irritating thing, proudly pretentious and nostalgic, written by philosophers, curmudgeons, pedants, intellectual dandies. …There were articles on philosophical conundrums, on opera, on unjustifiably unknown Eastern European and Chinese poets.”

We struck the pose of 18th-century gentlemen and gentlewomen and used sentences that had subordinate clauses. We reviewed heavy books, devoted long articles to subjects such as birdwatching in Kenya or the anthropic cosmological principle, and we printed mottoes in Latin or German without translating them. This left our natural ideological adversaries scratching their heads.

Finding readers turned out to be a snip, as we were at least potentially entertaining. It wasn’t entirely necessary to pander to vulgar tastes; only to write mischievous headlines. Our idle, philosophical attitude was consistently joyful, not ideologically grim. Thus, we had a huge advantage over the local competition.

But the Canadian “media” economy was set up, then as now, to perpetuate grimness. There were no subsidies for joy, but instead penalties for thought crimes that evolved into today’s political incorrectitudes. Interestingly, our artists, whom we cultivated in the same way as our writers, were loyal to The Idler for the same reason: there was no other place where they were wanted.

Nothing much has changed, with the possible exception of technology, in the four decades since. The Hub is among several online presences in conflict with the brain death that continues to constitute the Canadian identity. It is one of the tiny cells that is twitching.

Making a buck

By luck, after producing the first issue entirely at my own expense, and distributing illustrated handbills to promote it, I  awoke one morning to discover that literary editor William French had actually given the magazine prominent, enthusiastic coverage in The Globe and Mail. (He was an old-fashioned liberal, after all, with an open mind.) Soon, we were selling more than a thousand on newsstands, and had the largest foreign circulation of any Canadian magazine, I recall (thanks to five readers in Buffalo).

Over the next decade, we gave many Canadian writers their start and elevated a few foreign “big names” (like journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and the famous jailbird and Czech author Václav Havel). We also attracted—for a while—an intelligent furniture manufacturer and Holocaust survivor, Manny Drukier, who had the clever idea of starting a pub downstairs from our Toronto office, in the building he owned. This way, he reasoned, he’d be able to recover the modest wages he paid us. It was like putting up a sign that read, “Interesting people, please assemble here.” It also secured the curious intrigue we had instigated between Catholics, High Anglicans, and Jews, who were more welcome in our liquid environment than fashionable atheists.

While The Idler Pub certainly helped on the revenue side, we still had a wee problem, which was making a profit. Although we were circulating in excess of what any Canadian “literary magazine” had ever done, we still carried no advertising.

“Later, to shut us up, they gave us some chump change.”

The book publishers, whom we thought would be our natural market, went to some trouble ignoring us, as we multiplied reviews in “Read & Remarked” (our showplace for Gerald Owen, our learned public reader or “Anagnostes”). They were of course themselves chiefly dependent on the killjoy the Canada Council for the Arts, and other institutions of the vacuous Left, which also were not giving us any money.

We hit a little goldmine with a house advertisement that declared, “Subscribe to Canada’s 97th best literary magazine,” because 96 had received generous grants from these government cultural agencies. Only The Idler and The Chesterton Review (then published out of Saskatoon) were spurned. Later, to shut us up, they gave us some chump change.

Through Mr. Drukier’s efforts, however, we received ads from several of his industrial suppliers. I designed the mottoes and typography. I still remember my masterpiece: “Mampey Screw Works: None better! Check it out.” The client had declined “Memorable Screws.”

Then we invented “Idler to Idler,” a section of classified ads at the back of the magazine, which suddenly appeared, at Manny’s suggestion. I made up the first few dozen implausible entries. For instance: “I’ve got Spanny. You had him tied to a pillar at Dufferin and Bloor. Leave $250 in Druxy bag at Greyhound terminal locker 6, or Spanny is no more.”Or, “We met on Lufthansa, fell in love at JFK, lost each other at Terminal 1. Please call Jerry in Bramalea.”

Even these received “jokative” responses, and by next issue we received some genuine small ads, for which we had to assign genuine pigeonholes. We also launched the imaginary “Thelma Fowler,” an opinionated small advertisement manager, who was just one of the products of our ingenious copy editor, Elaine Duffy. The style caught on wondrously. The leading section was, of course, “Amours and Companions,” but miscellaneous “literary and scientific” requests suggested plenty of readers had been starved of community.

I estimate that, through Idler to Idler, and The Idler Pub, we were responsible for quite a few marriages as the ’80s moved along, mostly between the sort of couples who would prove fertile, and whose children must be approaching forty today. But swelling the population had not been among our initial purposes.

The end of the line 

Towards the end of 1993, all our little debts were called in with the chickens, and we went tits up. There was one last sad Christmas party in The Idler Pub.

I haven’t invidiously named a few of our young contributors because several have managed to survive and even prosper in the “liberal and progressive” mass media, since. They have done so by abandoning the character they had once displayed and, I think, selling out. Still others have blown away with the winter snow. Even the stalwarts, with the passage of time, die one by one—like my patron, Manny, and my co-editor, Gerald, just the other day. May they rest in peace.

Aside from such appalling “facts of life,” was the experience worth it? It was. Given world enough and time, would I try it again? Of course I would.

The Weekly Wrap: It’s time for conservatives to give up on Doug Ford

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor at large, analyses exclusively for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Ontario’s 2024 budget is a turning point for conservatives and Doug Ford

Conservatives have given the Ford government the benefit of the doubt since it was first elected in 2018. They were prepared early in its first term to overlook reversals on key policies like de-regulation or social assistance reform. They voted for its re-election even though its COVID policies were some of the most draconian and unsensible in the Western world. They accepted that the small-ball populism was the transaction cost of a populist premier. They stayed quiet in the face of the petty corruption evident in the Greenbelt scandal. They’ve even tolerated the sustained lack of progress on the province’s poor public finances on the grounds that the pandemic had disrupted the government’s fiscal efforts. 

The past week, however, feels like a turning point for the relationship between conservatives and the Ford government. Eventually one needs to come to terms with the realization that nothing different or better is coming. Conservatives have understandably reached that point.

The first sign was the housing file, where the Ford government has talked the talk but consistently failed to walk the walk. That housing starts in the province are not only far from the government’s ambitious targets but have actually fallen year-over-year can only be interpreted as evidence that the government isn’t serious about addressing housing affordability. The premier’s recent opposition to fourplexes, which ought to be low-hanging fruit in a new YIMBY politics, has reinforced this point. The Hub recently published Progressive Conservative supporter Matt Spoke on the government’s disappointing housing record. As he rightly put it: “[the premier has] ultimately refused to go beyond words.” 

This week’s budget is the same story. That the provincial deficit is moving in the wrong direction effectively amounts to the Ford government conceding any semblance of fiscal reform. The argument that the real problem is too few revenues fails to reckon with the fact that Ford’s government is spending more than the previous Wynne government. It’s no longer the case that the former’s fiscal record is no better than the latter’s. It’s now clearly worse. Ford’s fiscal legacy will be to have overseen a further deterioration of the province’s public finances. 

For me, however, the Ford government’s biggest failing isn’t what it has done. It’s what it hasn’t done. This is a government defined by opportunity costs. It was elected in 2018 with high public awareness of the economic and fiscal challenges facing the province and considerable support for ambitious reform. Its political opposition was in disarray. Its subsequent re-election only strengthened the conditions for policy ambition. Yet nearly six years into its time in office, nothing has changed.

The province’s education system is shot through with left-wing identity politics and still producing mediocre results. Its health-care system is collapsing under the pathologies of the single-payer model. Social assistance continues to trap people in joblessness and state dependency. Its regulatory system still stands in the way of investment and much-needed projects. Its public debt is among the highest sub-sovereign debt loads in the world. Its persistently high tax rates are deterring entrepreneurship, investment, and job creation. Crime is on the rise in its major cities. None of these challenges have improved and many have worsened during Ford’s time in office. 

The notion of conservatives continuing to support the government in the hope that it will somehow find a sense of purpose and execute a policy agenda that matches these challenges is a fool’s errand. This is who the Ford government is. Conservatives should give up hoping for something different. 

Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada Carolyn Rogers participates in a news conference, Wednesday, April 13, 2022 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.
The Bank of Canada has the right message—but its the wrong messenger

I’m saying it’s an emergencyit’s time to break glass.” 

On Tuesday, Carolyn Rogers, the senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, delivered a rather extraordinary speech in Halifax in which she set her sights on Canada’s poor productivity record. Building off on a lot of The Hub’s regular commentary on the country’s stagnant and even declining GDP per capita (including our deteriorating comparison with the United States), her remarks painted a grim picture that she ultimately concluded represents a national emergency.  

Rogers’s speech is a must-read for anyone interested in the secular stagnation that has beset the Canadian economy. It’s a clear-eyed and straightforward diagnosis of the problem and its underlying causes—namely, a lack of business investment in machinery, equipment, and intellectual property.

We cannot help but read it as a huge validation of the analysis and arguments that Trevor Tombe and others have documented at The Hub over the past several months. It’s a promising sign that after nearly a decade, the centre of gravity of economic policy thinking is shifting from a hyper-focus on distributional questions to renewed attention to economic growth and wealth creation. 

Yet one cannot help but feel a bit uneasy about a central banker weighing into broader macroeconomic issues and using such politicized language. The prime minister and minister of finance would, in my view, have a good reason to be irritated about the speech—and not merely because it is critical of the government’s economic record. 

We’ve spent the better part of the past two years insisting that politicians need to stick to their knitting when it comes to monetary policy even though in hindsight it’s clear that the Bank of Canada and other central banks around the world were too slow to recognize rising inflation in early 2022. It only seems fair therefore that central bankers ought to limit their own commentary about broader economic and fiscal policy. 

It might be one thing to answer a question from a journalist or a member of parliament. It’s another to deliver a speech entitled “Time to break glass: Fixing Canada’s productivity problem.” (I had the same problem incidentally when former Bank governor Stephen Poloz was critical of the Harper government’s efforts to balance the budget.)

It’s telling that Rogers’ speech came with an accompanying Instagram video. It’s as if the Bank of Canada communications staff has decided that eight annual interest rate announcements aren’t enough for the social media age. Our central bankers apparently need more visibility and their own voices and brands. 

After the past few years, however, most Canadians would likely be prepared to trade off knowing who the senior deputy governor is or what she thinks about productivity or any other number of issues in exchange for stable prices. 

Simply put: one can wholeheartedly agree with Rogers’ message—Canada’s stagnant productivity growth and declining living standards are a national emergency—and still think she’s the wrong messenger. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference to announce the construction of an electric vehicle battery production plant by Volkswagen Group’s battery company PowerCo SE in St. Thomas, Ontario Friday, April 21, 2023. Tara Walton/The Canadian Press.
Canada’s carbon tax debate is mostly missing the point

Carbon taxes were arguably the week’s main policy issue. It started with an open letter from a group of economists defending the carbon tax and ended with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s parliamentary committee appearance strongly opposing it. 

The Hub was fully engaged in the debate. We published a popular article by economist Steven Ambler that was critical of the federal carbon tax. We also released an episode of Hub Dialogues with economist Chris Ragan (who helped draft the open letter) in favour of it. Both are highly informative and worth checking out. 

The open letter’s conceptual defence of carbon taxes is fair enough. It makes a persuasive case that carbon taxes can reduce carbon emissions at a lower cost than other emission abatement policies such as sectoral regulations or corporate subsidies. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t quite work as a defence of the Trudeau government’s actual climate plan. 

As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Wrap, new research by the Canadian Climate Institute estimates that the consumer carbon tax is only responsible for 8 or 9 percent of projected emissions reductions between now and 2030. The vast majority will come from either industrial pricing (which conservative provincial governments and presumably the federal Conservatives support) or the types of regulations and subsidies that carbon taxes are supposed to mostly substitute for.

The key point here is that the intellectual and political debate about carbon taxes seems like an odd combination of performative and detached from reality. We essentially have a political consensus in favour of climate policy agenda in which the consumer carbon tax plays a small or non-existent role in meeting our emissions target. Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre are subject to political incentives that cause them to overstate the differences in their respective climate policies. 

Meanwhile, the academic economists have weighed into the debate in a way that affirms the prime minister’s rhetoric about carbon taxes but neglects his government’s actual policies. It’s hard otherwise to square their support for carbon taxes on efficiency grounds with the Trudeau government’s billions of dollars in centrally planned subsidies for electric vehicle production. 

The letter’s signatories may lament where climate policy is headed but it seems increasingly clear that we’re going to end up with a durable bipartisan consensus around a mix of industrial pricing, regulations, and subsidies. Policy scholars would be prudent to think more about how to design such a regime in the most cost-effective way. Simon Fraser University economist Mark Jaccard has done some solid work along these lines. 

One exception could be Ragan’s comments near the end of our podcast about whether, from a global point of view, Canada’s optimal policy would actually see its emissions rise in 2030 in order to boost its LNG exports and help other countries move off higher-emitting energy sources. It would represent a controversial decision that deviates from the bipartisan assumption that Canada must lower its national emissions. But it strikes me as a far more constructive and worthy debate than the contrived one that’s played out over the week.