Medium 9781770907348

What Was I Thinking?

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Brilliant, fractious, mordantly funny, playwright/novelist/essayist Rick Salutin has been Canadian journalism’s agent provocateur for over three decades. Whether needling governments and politicians, holding public policy to account, or decrying the shortfalls of activist thought and action, he has been one of the most outspoken commentators of his generation.

In What Was I Thinking?, Salutin reveals his curiosity about both the world of the mind and the world of the here and now. His life has been graced with contact with extraordinary people from Hannah Arendt to Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim to goalkeeper-politician Ken Dryden, and we discover the profound influence their thought has had on his. But he has also had encounters with Conrad Black and Peter Worthington, joined his fellow coffee-drinkers in the infamous fight to save the west-end institution Dooney’s from displacement by Starbucks, and taken furious potshots at the political pandering of the nation’s media outlets.

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Part I: What Shapes the Thinking

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— Friedrich Nietzsche

I’M STANDING IN THE PHILOSOPHY section of the bookstore at the University of Toronto one day in the early 2000s. I stepped in here bereft, after dropping off my poor laptop at the computer shop next door for service. They’ll call when it’s ready. I can’t write or check email. I might as well read. I’m looking for something by Hannah Arendt, with whom I studied philosophy in New York in the 1960s. I’d gone into philosophy after dropping out of rabbinical seminary. It seemed a natural transition; I still hankered for meaning, but my faith was fading.

“Thanks a lot for that column this morning,” says a man scanning the shelves beside me. “You’re welcome,” I say, blanking on the column, as I often do the day after I write one. “Based on what you said,” he goes on, “you might be interested in the new book by Agamben, on the state of exception.” Oh yes, the column was about torture and “the new normal” since 9/11. I don’t know Agamben. I think of Agrabah, capital of a desert sultanate in the Disney film Aladdin. I’m up on kid culture these days.

 

Part II: The Things to Which We Attend

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“WHEN I SIT DOWN TO write,” said Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, “I feel I am sitting on a mountain of Hebrew books fifty miles high.” Aharon is small and elfin and looks like he might slip right off such a tippy height. We were at the Bagel, RIP, on College Street. I said I understood; I thought hard about moving to Israel and becoming a writer there myself, back when he taught me Hebrew during my student year in Jerusalem, in the 1960s. It would have meant trading English for Hebrew, but I adored the language and literature. I was acquiring my own little mountain of Hebrew books: biblical commentaries, love poetry from medieval Spain, the novels of Agnon. Each time I purged my bookshelves over the coming decades, those didn’t get tossed.

We’d been to Tip Top Tailors at College and Spadina to buy gifts for his family. When we finished, he said, “Now I want to go where I can see Jewish people.” So we crossed College to the Bagel. It had been taken over recently by a Japanese family.

 

Part III: Wisdom From a Short Perspective

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ODD. THERE ARE PEOPLE IN Nottingham who don’t seem to have heard of Sherwood Forest. The clerks at the hotel stare as if no one ever asked how to get there. They call a number and say a cab will cost 30 pounds each way. Wow. I thought Sherwood would be a big theme park, with the region focused around it, like Orlando. But it is a nature preserve, with a short Robin Hood Festival each summer. We planned to get here on its final weekend. I was sure there’d be regular tourist buses.

Gideon has been engaged with Robin Hood since age four; now he’s almost six. Pin it on Ross Petty. The actor-entrepreneur produces an English-style pantomime in Toronto each Christmas. That year it was Robin Hood. Ross played the sheriff of Nottingham. In the music hall tradition, the audience is encouraged to boo and cheer. Gideon was enthralled. From there we went to movie versions, such as the 1938 Errol Flynn film, with its robust music and rollicking jokes. Those tales met the main condition for capturing his four-year-old interest: they were about good guys versus bad guys.

 

Part IV: The Owl of Minerva Takes Flight in the Gathering Dusk

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MY 20 YEARS AS A weekly columnist for Canada’s august newspaper, the Globe and Mail, began in 1991, roughly coinciding with the end of the Cold War. I’d say they’re somewhat related. Till then I’d done everything possible to ensure I’d never occupy such a podium. The media responded in kind.

They generally viewed me as toxic for being a leftist, communist, or possible recipient of “Moscow gold” — though I was occasionally acceptable, perhaps once or twice a year, either to prove their open-mindedness or provide a frisson of dissent, a walk on the wild side.

From time to time I’d ask, like Oliver Twist, for more. In 1981, I wrote a loving takedown of the right-wing epigone Barbara Amiel in the marginal left journal This Magazine. Peter Newman, Amiel’s editor at mighty Maclean’s magazine, for which I sporadically wrote, told me he “loved every word” of the assault. He added that he’d deny saying so if I repeated it. I agreed not to quote him but asked for a column like hers. Oh no, he snapped back. It seemed to take no thought at all. We were in a restaurant, and I went over to the bar where I saw City-TV founder Moses Znaimer. I told him I found Newman’s attitude perplexing. “The spectrum of what’s acceptable in the mainstream media,” Znaimer explained gently, “runs from A to B, and it’s all right of centre.”

 

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