That best political book contest: but what about real influence?

There are good reads, and there are game-changers

by John Geddes

It’s was fun watching the contest that Samara and the Writer’s Trust of Canada held to anoint the best Canadian political book of the past 25 years. The winner announced yesterday—selected by the gold-standard method of online voting—is Ezra Levant’s Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, which I haven’t gotten around to but I gather is about how our government is undermining democracy in the name of human rights.

No offence to fans of Shakedown (or any of the other finalists in the contest, which spotlighted some superb books), but when I scanned down the short list, something seemed to be missing. Not fine writing —Ron Graham’s One-Eyed Kings, for example, provides plenty of that. Not polemical verve—Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept is your ticket there. Not journalistic timeliness and historical insight—other books in the running offered these virtues.

But what I wondered is whether any of them could claim to have directly influenced Canadian politics beyond being good reads. Vanishingly few books ever have that sort of impact. When I reflect back on the past quarter-century of books on Canadian politics, I can only think of a couple of possibilities, and only one that strikes me as especially interesting in the Harper era.

That would be Peter Brimelow’s The Patriot Game: National Dreams & Political Realities. I remember how the book resonated around the time it appeared in 1986. Back then, Canadian right-wingers of my acquaintance were feeling a bit left behind by the goings-on in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain. Brimelow offered a bracingly of-the-moment conservative critique of Canada, albeit from the perspective of a British journalist who’d landed in Toronto in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he saw government as Canada’s problem—far too big, and way too beholden to Quebec.

Among the young conservatives who fastened on The Patriot Game was Stephen Harper, who had quit the Tories the year the book appeared to join Preston Manning’s Reformers. In Stephen Harper and The Future of Canada, William Johnson quotes Harper’s friend John Weissenberger on how the two of them persuaded a book store in Calgary to sell them ten copies at a discount so they could give extras to friends. No other book seems to have grabbed the future Prime Minister quite the same way.

That’s influence of a very particular sort. Now, whether the book deserves to be on any best-of-the-quarter-century list is quite another matter. (It wouldn’t make mine.) Still, I think if we’re in a mood to reconsider political books that demonstrably mattered, The Patriot Game must be near the top of the heap. It seemed to give shape to the thinking of Canadian conservatives who would, with Harper, rise to run the country.

Has there been a book in the past 25 years of similar importance to the Canadian left? I’m not at all sure, but I do remember John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, being unusually widely read and enthusiastically embraced by progressive types after it appeared in 1995. Yet I don’t think Saul’s book, for all its popularity, galvanized a core group of eager, ultimately powerful true-believers the way The Patriot Game did.

By the way, Brimelow didn’t stay on in Canada. He moved to the U.S., where he writes about hard-core conservative bugaboos like the evil of teachers’ unions and the dire threat immigration poses to America.




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That best political book contest: but what about real influence?

  1. it’s a shame Samara chose to do on-line voting. Having Conservative cheerleaders like Steven Taylor exort followers on Facebook to vote for Levant’s book really sums up the sad result of what should have been a really interesting exercise in Canadian political literature.

    • Indeed. Online competition will be fairer when Liberals or NDP supporters are allowed to use internet and vote and not just conservatives, apparently.  

      • It’s not a matter of fairness, it’s a matter of it meaning anything.

        Online voting, as any self-selected method, doesn’t actually measure how many people like something, at best it’s a measure of intensity among a core audience.

        Most often, however, it’s simply a measure of whether one group or another bothered to publicize the poll.

        • Exactly right.  This poll was Freeped.  In the last days Samara was making a concerted effort to promote the contest through progressive blogs, hoping to garner non-Ezra votes.  I didn’t bother.  You run an online poll like it means anything and you get this kind of result.  Eat it, Samara should have known better.  Half the goobers that voted for Ezra’s book never read it, and I’m sure they all found a way to vote ten times apiece.

          • Thank you John for writing such a thoughtful post.  This was exactly the kind of discussion we hoped this contest would generate.

            Thank you to the commenters for sharing your feedback on the process.  The overall objective for us and for the Writers’ Trust was to create a fun and hopefully engaging way to encourage discussion about political books and political writing. Its goal is to be a resource for Canadians to learn about their political history and encourage readers to reflect on the contribution that these books make to our country’s great political debates.  

            Until now, there’s no real list of recommended books to read if you care about these subjects, and we’re grateful to the thousands of people who contributed to the project.

            I wanted to address the comment on publicity for the contest.We publicized the poll in media across the country starting at the end of June. It was featured on the CBC, GlobalNews.ca, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, PostMedia’s papers, Sun Media, Aaron Wherry’s blog, IPolitics, The Quill and Quire and The Mark News (and perhaps other as well).  In addition, we sent requests for participation to over 100 bloggers of all stripes. We also distributed notices through the newsletters of both our organizations, and reached out to libraries, service clubs and NGOs across the country to let them know about the poll.  Finally, we extensively promoted it through Facebook and Twitter throughout the month of July.

            The contest generated over 200 nominations, which we compiled here: http://www.samaracanada.com/List_of_Nominations

            The authors also took the time to respond to a series of Q&As, which are really fascinating looks into what was involved in the writing process, as well as their comments on political writing more generally: http://www.samaracanada.com/Author_Q%26A

            Like all votes, they are won by people who participate, and that’s no doubt the case here as well. Love or hate the winner (and we’re hearing from lots on both sides!), hopefully you’ve found at least one title among the list that provokes you to read something you might not have otherwise.

            If you have any suggestions on how this process can be improved in future years, please let me know.  This idea originated from reader response to a blog I wrote on Canada Day 2010, and we’re always happy to hear ideas and do our best to incorporate them.

            Thank you again for the comments.

            Alison Loat, Samara

          • Except that the book is unequivically crap, where it is not defamatory. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

            Furthermore, answer me this: was there, or not,  a concerted campaign in the last week or so before the announcement to recruit anti-Shakedown votes from the progressive side of the blogosphere.  I am under the impression that there was.

          • hi Bigcitylib – No, that’s not right.  We did extensive outreach in June and early July, as described above, but nothing aside from social media updates after that. 

            Update: I just confirmed with our intern, who helped with the outreach, and we did send out a reminder to a long list of people (bloggers of all stripes, media etc.) in the last few days before the deadline.

            Thanks again for your interest.

  2. Has there been a book of similar influence on the Canadian left? It didn’t make it onto Samara’s short-list, but I’d nominate Fire and Ice by pollster Michael Adams. It’s hard to think back to the early years of the post-9/11 decade, when the received view by both the left and the right was that Canada was doomed. Remember Richard Gwynn’s “virtual sovereignty”? Remember Michael Bliss’s ridiculously gloomy “Identity trilogy”, which told Canadians that we had none? 

    Perhaps I’m reading it through my own anxieties and biases at the time, but my recollection is that Adams’ book landed like a fun-grenade in the deep waters of Canadian self-pitying. 

  3. Beliefs come first, explanations second. I bet The Patriot Game … confirmed Harper et al’s beliefs, did not create new converts to conservatism. 

    My most influential book is PJ O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores. My family socialists, fabians,  trudeau liberals … etc and I considered myself a socialist until I read P of W in university. 

    Progressives don’t read political books, not ideology ones at least, left wing use random studies. Right wing have fav books, thinkers, economists but left wing doesn’t. 

    Left wing rely on studies produced by left wing ‘scholars’ in academia to back up their arguments. 

    O’Rourke ~ “Whenever I’m in the middle of conformity, surrounded by oneness of mine with people oozing concurrence on every side, I get scared. And when I find myself agreeing with everybody, too, I get terrified.”

    http://workinghumor.com/quotes/parliament.shtml#

    • ..drip … drip …. drip …

      • I don’t know what that means but I am sure it’s clever. 

    • I expect you don’t even realize that you just argued that the left wing relies on those who gather facts about reality while the right wing relies on those who only think about what it must be like.

      That said, however, you’re simply ignorant.

      • Thwim ~ If I am ignorant, why do you spend time following me around like a bad smell on my shoe? You think babies are parasites, so I have no problem with someone like you thinking I am ignorant or stupid or whatever name you want to call me today. 

        ” … left wing relies on those who gather facts about reality … ”

        “One of the book’s most enjoyable discussions concerns the politics of belief. Mr. Shermer takes an entertaining look at academic research claiming to prove that conservative beliefs largely result from psychopathologies. 

        He drolly cites survey results showing that 80% of professors in the humanities and social sciences describe themselves as liberals. Could these findings about psychopathological conservative political beliefs possibly be the result of the researchers’ confirmation bias?”

        http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303365804576432011569887724.html

        • Because I hate the thought that some poor soul might log in here and think you have an iota of a clue as to what the hell you speak of, or might be unaware of how readily and without remorse you spin, distort, use half-truths, and otherwise seek to ape the CPC’s campaign office by trying to consistently “muddy-the-water”.

          But mostly when I see such obvious overgeneralization and simple ignorance, I feel it’s valuable to point it out so the perpetrator has the opportunity to re-evaluate.

  4. Thank you John Geddes

    for this post and thanks as well to Alison Loat for the info she provided.

    I have not read Andrew Cohen’s _While Canada Slept_, but I did read Cohen’s  

    _The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are_ which is the best non-fiction Canadian book I have every read; I recommend it often.  

    http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771021817

    • You’re welcome Veronica.  Cohen is a great writer.  I also highly recommend his book about Lester Pearson.  Happy reading!

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