The birth of the National Post 20 years ago had a profound impact on our national conversations about politics, the economy and our swiftly evolving culture. The Post was meant to be a journalistic disruptor, and it accomplished that goal.
Long before I joined the Comment section as a weekly contributor in 2003 — indeed, for months before the Post’s official launch — I was acutely aware of the behind-the-scenes excitement, because founding editor Ken Whyte had invited our son Jonathan to join the editorial board. (Although we knew Jon loved writing, his sudden pivot to journalism came as a great shock to us both, since we had assumed that he was fully committed to his nascent career in tax law.)
He and the other members of that first board, who’d been plucked from everywhere but journalism school, spent weeks in “rehearsal” under the tutelage of master conservative journalist, John O’Sullivan, so they could hit the ground running. O’Sullivan stayed on for six months, ensuring that this lucky cohort of young turks, including its now most controversial alumnus, Ezra Levant, had the finest education in their craft money could buy (and in those days there was quite a bit of dosh available for any and all strategies that would — and did — make the Post’s editorial writing primus inter pares.)
Nobody better represents the buoyancy, boldness and brio of the Post in its early years than its star columnist, Mark Steyn. Canadian journalism had never seen anything like him before, with his quicksilver wit and merry disrespect for sacred national cows, like multiculturalism (“a suicide cult conceived by the Western elites not to celebrate all cultures, but to deny their own”). I can just imagine the big eyes and gaping mouths of staid, complacent and/or self-righteously leftist pundits at rival newspapers as they contemplated the coruscating new stylistic standard against which they would henceforth be judged.
Steyn couldn’t be nationally pigeonholed. Like his boss, Conrad Black, Steyn was equally at home in America, Britain and Canada, and had his finger on the pulse of political correctness everywhere in the West. Black and Steyn were also alike in their relatively new roles in Canada as “public intellectuals.” At the time, the trope was making headway in the U.S., where all kinds of think tanks and independent conservative institutions flourished, but representation of this burgeoning genre — conservative ideas purveyors untethered to academia — was still sparse in Canada. (In a 1999 Post column, David Frum, who would himself become a leading example of the type, referred to “what the Americans call public intellectuals.”)
As a 2011 academic article on the phenomenon noted, “By the end of the 1990s, however, there was an upswing in interest in public intellectuals in English Canada. This coincided with the founding of the new conservative newspaper the National Post in 1998 by Conrad Black. The Post is the publication where references to public intellectuals were the most common over the period, and this is connected to the Post’s role as a right wing forum for public intellectual discourse. With the founding of the Post, then, interest in the term slowly mounted.”
Of course, nobody better deserved the moniker of “public intellectual” than the Post’s own Conrad Black, who was, and remains, intellectually absorbed by Canada’s and America’s histories and by the complex leaders who shaped them. Amongst conservative thinkers in Canada, a small pond indeed, only Conrad Black had the intellectual, journalistic and cultural networking chops to construct ex nihilo a Canadian newspaper capable of “owning” that entire constituency’s loyalty, and quickly. Black’s own erudite (and frequently lexically challenging) columns are unique in Canada for their unapologetically intellectual elitism, often mocked, but widely appreciated, even when they disagree with him, by highly educated alumni of a more rigorous educational era.
Only Mark had the temerity to say things that nobody else dared to
In 2005, to gin up enthusiasm for more right-wing discourse in the public forum, the Post ran a series called “Beautiful Minds,” whose purpose was to crown Canada’s most important public intellectual. The terms of reference were “a thinker who has shown distinction in his or her own field and can communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.” The 22 contenders included Margaret Atwood, Michael Ignatieff, Charles Taylor, Tom Flanagan, Irshad Manji, Naomi Klein, Preston Manning and Peter C. Newman.
We columnists were asked to choose a favourite and argue his or her corner. I nominated and championed Mark Steyn,as freedom of speech was one of my niche topics even then, and only Mark had the temerity to say things that nobody else dared to, examples of which I included in my encomium (on a proposed Declaration of reconciliation to find areas of compromise between Muslim and Western nations: “Maybe the Grand Congress of Reconciliation would thrash out a compromise whereby we lightly pebble-dash adulteresses, merely castrate sodomites and kill only some of the Jews”).
It was a “People’s Choice” award, and the People chose Don Cherry. Steyn came in second. I am sure Steyn appreciated the irony and populist justice of the outcome. At least he beat Naomi Klein, who came in third.
To end on a personal — and, please excuse me, a sucky note — the gratification I have known in being published sporadically, and then regularly, by the Post for 20 years has never dimmed. Conrad Black’s realization of his great and noble ambition was my good fortune. But more important, it was Canada’s good fortune. The National Post has arguably made Canada a better country than it would otherwise have been, and — inarguably — a far more interesting country.