Entries from December 1997

El Nino Just An Elaborate Plot Device

David Frum December 16th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Orange County, CA

‘It never rains in California,’ goes an old song, but even old songs get it wrong sometimes. For the past two weeks it has not only been raining in California, but the winds have been howling and the temperatures dropping to freezing at night, even in southern California. Canadians need feel little pity for the poor babies (as I write, it’s windy, yes, but it’s still 65 degrees), but for the Californians it’s a shock.

The cause of the climactic commotion is that notorious tropical storm, El Nino. Once a decade or so, we are told, the currents in the Pacific Ocean shift direction and meteorological mayhem ensues.

Here in the U.S. – on the East Coast as well as on the West — El Nino has been a big media story. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive to the battered denizens of California, but one has to wonder why. It’s not a hurricane or a flood: it’s not visually dramatic; it’s just a cold, windy spell. What’s going on?

The answer, I think, is that El Nino is the journalistic equivalent of a Macguffin. ‘Macguffin’ is a movie term for the thing that gets the plot moving. It’s a Maltese Falcon, a Lost Ark, or anything else that supplies a motive to have our characters chasing back and forth across the screen.

The journalistic equivalent of the Macguffin is the all-purpose explanation — the ready, plausible-sounding answer to the perplexing question, ‘why?’ Suppose you’re covering the stock market, and it’s been dropping steadily for three days. On the fourth day, it reverses itself and pops up 100 points. Do you know what caused the recovery? Almost certainly not and neither, probably, do your sources. So you reach into your journalistic bag of tricks and write, ‘The market rebounded because it was oversold.’ ‘Oversold’ is a financial journalist’s Macguffin.

Or let’s say you’re sent to a cover a civil war in a country you’ve barely heard of. You arrive and discover that — after years of living more or less peaceably together — the inhabitants have for no reason you can see suddenly grabbed machetes and hatchets and begun massacring each other. You videotape the corpses and say, ’they fell victim to ancestral ethnic hatreds’ — the foreign correspondent’s Macguffin.

You’ll find this sort of handy all-purpose phrase in political, legal and financial reporting too, and for the same reason: The world is a mysterious and confusing place, filled with inexplicable events, and journalists must try to make sense of them in a very short span of time and in very few words.

Consider the climate. The world is supposedly suffering from a bout of global warming. The evidence for this trend is highly technical — in fact, virtually incomprehensible to almost everyone who writes on the subject. Whether you believe in global warming or not depends on which you think more reliable — temperatures taken at the equator on the earth’s surface (which suggest warming) or temperatures taken by satellites in upper orbit (which cast doubt on it); whether you accept computer models (which argue for warming) or historical records (which dispute it). And so on.

Now most of us — me very much included — cannot even begin to assess properly which of these sets of evidence is more trustworthy. So we rely on our senses. When there’s a hot spell, as there was in the summers of the mid-1990s, we are ready to believe in global warming. When there’s unusually cold weather, we’re tougher to convince.

So here we are in December 1997, with the world’s diplomats having gathered in Kyoto to sign a climate treaty that will dramatically raise the price of oil and gas throughout the industrial world. And at the same time, the voters in the most
important state of the world’s most important country are being lashed by viciously cold and windy weather. You see the problem. People in and around Los Angeles are right now asking themselves: Do the journalists and scientists who are warning us about global warming really know what they are talking about?

So what is needed is a Macguffin: Something that reassures readers and listeners that we do indeed know what we’re talking about (even if — or especially if — we don’t); that global warming is indeed compatible with incredibly cold weather. That’s El Nino. And that’s why Americans are hearing so much about it.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Confessions Of An Indulgent Father

David Frum December 9th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

I grew up in the late 1960s, heyday of anticonsumerist sentiment. My parents held strong prejudices against any toy made of plastic, and had a rule (not quite a rule, more a mental reflex) against buying any plaything advertised on television. While I chafed against these attitudes at the time, there’s no question the rule made an impression on me. Today, I don’t enforce the no-plastic, no-advertising rule of my youth against my children. Their rooms are jammed with Barbies, Power Rangers, Hot Wheels and other lurid mass-produced treats. And yet somewhere in my soul the old Puritanism still makes itself felt.

Each year when my wife comes home from Hanukkah-shopping, my eyes boggle: Must they get quite so many toys? Her reply is always the same: she looks at me with large eyes, and says, ‘But this year they’ve been such good children. They want the Hot Wheels Demolition Derby/Las Vegas Showgirl Barbie/Men in Black Deatomizer Blaster so badly. And look: it was all on sale.’ She always prevails.

And maybe she’s right. Season after season, my resistance to the materialism of the holidays weakens. Think of all the things you do for your children. How many of them will they even remember? Out of the thousands of trips to zoos and museums, hundreds of holiday excursions to alligator parks, monkey cages, northern lakes and southern beaches, they retain only the vague afterglow of a happy childhood. Last week, I got a letter from a Grade 8 teacher, who in passing,
recalled a field trip for which my father had done the driving. I was appalled to discover that, while I remembered the trip, I had no memory of my father having been there.

And of those things they will remember, how many will they actually enjoy? It truly is for their own good that we discipline them, but they, naturally enough, don’t see it that way. Later, maybe, they’ll be glad we took them to church or synagogue every week, but at age seven or eight, they’d rather be home watching cartoons in pyjamas.

Homework; dress codes; curfews — all for their own sake, and all struggles.

But there’s one thing we do for them that brings them pleasure now and that they never forget — the gifts they get at this season of the year. Even now, when I come across an old broken piece of childhood junk, I can recall when I got it and whom I got it from. It may be the wiles and manipulation of Madison Avenue that cause children to so desperately hunger for this or that piece of extruded plastic. But they do hunger for it, and with an avidity that overwhelms our
adult appetites at their greediest. Why not give it to them? Not all the time – we all know the harm that does — but on a holiday, when their yearning is at its sharpest, and when it’s the season for giving.

And once one enters into the spirit of it, it’s even possible to enjoy the sheer gaudy insanity of the world of modern children’s toys. Haim Saban, the billionaire inventor of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, was recently the subject of a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. It detailed his untiring effort to top each of his inspirations with something even more outlandish. He woke up in the middle of the night in his Beverly Hills mansion last year, burning with his latest inspiration. He shouted the title of his newest cartoon series out loud, waking his wife. She groggily asked him what he was yelling about. ‘I’ve just had a brainwave — fighting, talking cats with superpowers. They’re
called the Pizza Kung Fu Cats.’ Long pause. ‘I feel sorry for you,’ she said, and went back to sleep.

Little minds are not good at abstraction. It’s hard for them to understand our love for them independent of the ways we show that love. For them, really, the material and the spiritual are fused. It’s silly and ridiculous and often painfully expensive. The lines at the toy stores are intolerably long. But it’s only once a year. And while the toys quickly break, in the ways that matter most, they last forever.

Originally published in The Financial Post

Veterans Are Aliens In Their Own Land

David Frum December 2nd, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It’s not every day it is insinuated that one’s father-in-law is soft on Nazism. But as the controversy over the proposed Holocaust gallery in the national war museum in Ottawa has heated up, those responsible for the project are hurling ever wilder allegations against their critics. My wife’s father, columnist Peter Worthington, has joined the anti-gallery fight with his customary vigor, and as a result has received some of the most vicious of the abuse.

It’s not my custom to hobnob with Nazi sympathizers, and since we’re expected at Casa Worthington in three weeks for some seasonal eggnog, I thought I’d better delve into this. Otherwise, things could get mighty awkward.

I did my research, and discovered — amazingly — Worthington is actually a veteran of the war against Nazism. So, it turns out, is almost everyone else who’s taken a stance against the Ottawa Holocaust gallery. Which suggests there must be some other reason for their opposition.

Normally, after all, one would expect soldiers to welcome as part of the story of their war an account of the evil of the enemy they sacrificed so much to defeat. But nothing is normal about Canada’s relationship with its military history. The Holocaust gallery is the latest episode in the long-running cultural clash between the men who waged the Second
World War and the postwar generation that has run this country since the 1970s. The Second World War generation has endured the systematic obliteration of every one of the symbols that defined the nationality of the country for which
they shouldered arms. Their flag: gone. Their national anthem: gone. Their uniforms: gone. Their head of state: virtually gone. The armed services themselves: withered, bureaucratized and corrupted.

We seldom build them statues or monuments, and when we do, they are ugly and meaningless (think of the notorious ‘Gumby’ statue in honor of Canada’s airmen on Toronto’s University Avenue). The memory of their devotion and valor
has been lost to the young because we no longer teach our young history. (Last summer, Angus Reid conducted a survey of Canadians aged 18 to 24 for the Dominion Institute, and found only 35% could offer any account at all of what
happened on D-Day and only 33% know that Nov. 11 was the last day of the First World War.) And when our public broadcaster produces a television series to revive that memory, as The Valour and the Horror was supposed to do, it can understand veterans only as either killers or victims, but never as what they were: soldiers called to do a soldier’s brutal work in defence of civilization.

We have made our veterans aliens in the country for which they bled. Even their war museum has been subordinated to a board of directors headed by that ultra-perfect embodiment of left-wing Canada at its most self-satisfied, Adrienne Clarkson. Our veterans, in other words, have become highly sensitive to insults in the making. And they sense just such
a potential affront in the Holocaust gallery.

Defenders of the Holocaust gallery promise it will be reasonable in scale — only 12% of the exhibition space of an enlarged museum. They promise it will be placed on the second floor, leaving the main floor and a great atrium for other exhibits. They assure us it will not overshadow the rest of the museum’s story. If those promises are kept, a Holocaust gallery would only add glory to the military victories whose memory the museum preserves. But, after 20 years of abuse from establishment Canada, you can see why Canadian veterans are so suspicious of such promises.

They fear that rather than showing the evils of Nazism, a Holocaust gallery will be transformed into an
indictment of Canada – attacking it for not welcoming Jewish refugees from Hitler, for not prodding the Allies to do more to stop the death camps. Those accusations are true, but the memorial to the men who did the dying to stop Hitler is not the right place to do the accusing. Canadian veterans are entitled to a full and complete account of the contents of the proposed Holocaust gallery, and they are entitled to presume the worst until they get that account. And accusing the veterans of pro-Nazi sympathies when they decline to believe the smooth assurances of those who have so often lied to them before — well that only confirms their worst fears of what this renovation of their museum is really

Originally published in The Financial Post