I had a dream. Ezra Levant was on TV – arms flailing like an overheated piston, words Tommy-gunning out in rat-a-tat bursts – and he was cackling about his enemies. The oil-sands haters, the Occupy hipsters, the enviro-crazies, the CBC lovers, the radicals worried about free radicals in our food: they were all the same, and they were idiots. To prove his point, he whipped out a chainsaw and began tearing into a side of genetically modified beef. But as he shoved strips of raw meat down his gullet, he began foaming at the mouth.
The screen went blank for a second, and suddenly there was Levant again, fresh and pink as an Alberta wild rose, dressed like Oscar Wilde. He bared his teeth in a smile, cocked his head, and barked: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Then I woke up, and there was Ezra Levant on my television, equating environmentalists with “9/11 truthers.”
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does politics, which is why we have TV pundits. Few in Canada have risen as sharply over the past two decades as Ezra Levant, the Calgary-born pamphleteer who, in tearing a page from the playbook of the right-wing U.S. cable-news giants, fits snugly in a long tradition of Canadians who find innovations south of the border and then import them for a domestic audience.
Levant is a multi-platform threat: On his nightly Sun News show The Source, in columns for the Sun newspaper chain, gleefully tweaking critics on Twitter, as a frequent guest on talk radio, and as an award-winning author. His last book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, sold thousands and helped shift the dialogue away from the environmental despoliation of northern Alberta and toward human-rights abuses across OPEC countries.
Levant’s latest, Groundswell: The Case for Fracking (a lawyer by training, he enjoys making cases) is more of the same. It is a sunny sales job of the next-most-contentious form of North American oil extraction.
At least, it begins that way, painting a picture of a revolutionary new oil economy that would lower prices of everything for everybody, force OPEC dictatorships to become more democratic, and be awesome for the environment. But that’s too upbeat for Levant: what he really wants is a fight. “This book looks at the promise of natural gas that fracking has made possible,” he writes in the introduction. “But more importantly it looks at the enemies of fracking: who they are, what they’re saying, and why they’re fighting the future so desperately.”
This is vintage Levant. Like nuclear energy, Ezra Levant: The Brand was born of a collision. In the fall of 1993, while a first-year student at the University of Alberta law school, he criticized the administration for considering hiring quotas for women and aboriginal professors. When the university rapped his knuckles for speaking out, he was emboldened rather than cowed: it was the doctor’s slap that brought air into his young lungs. The press anointed him one of the young bucks of the new right, and he returned the compliment by calling the press a liberal conspiracy. (Well, most of the press, anyway: He did this while a freelance Calgary Sun columnist, a gig he landed while in second-year law.)
Levant saw the forces of oppression all about: in political science and women’s studies departments, in the long-form census, in human-rights commissions.
He became a Reform Party operative and moved to Ottawa, where he honed his natural instinct for PR stunts: To bring attention to the Mexican travels of absentee Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson, Levant hired a mariachi band to play in the lobby of the Senate while burritos were served.
Even from the beginning, though, he had difficulty colouring within the lines: In 1998, Levant wrote a fundraising letter on behalf of Canadian Alliance MP Rob Anders that called then-Senator Ron Ghitter lazy and un-Albertan. Ghitter demanded an apology. Levant and Anders refused, but after the senator launched a defamation suit, they backed down.
In time, Levant hungered to be elected for himself, and in 2002 he won the Canadian Alliance nomination in Calgary Southwest. But he stepped aside to allow another rising star to run instead: Stephen Harper.
He probably wouldn’t have lasted long in caucus, anyway. Besides, he seems to have found his life’s calling.
Earlier this spring, Levant was in a Toronto courtroom defending himself in a defamation case brought by Khurrum Awan. In 2007, the Alberta man had been a law student involved in a complaint against an article in Maclean’s magazine titled “The future belongs to Islam.” Levant had blogged about it on his personal site, making comments Awan said made it difficult to later find employment.
Levant likes being in the spotlight, but not, apparently, if it costs him money; he says the case is a nuisance lawsuit designed to shut him up. In a recent segment on The Source, he said the courts are not the proper venue to hash out the issues, which instead “should have been resolved in a TV debate, or a political campaign.”
He loves being on TV, but I’m not sure TV loves him back. Since joining Sun News three years ago, Levant has failed to evolve as a host: His delivery is tightly wound and smarmy, and he has no evident gift for television production. While his core points are often valid – vital to the conversation, even – his addiction to childish tactics and his refusal to tailor his opening essays to the medium are death knells.
And for a man who seems to have studied his American forebears so extensively, he has failed utterly to learn how to mimic the persuasive charms of a Bill O’Reilly or the wackadoodle authenticity of a Glenn Beck. He has a genuinely nasty streak that flares up in his attacks – on the Roma people, for example – that have landed him in hot water with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.
He seems less interested in free speech than in listening to his own speech. Perhaps fatally, he has no visible sense of humour about himself.
In Groundswell, he has great fun mocking one of his favourite targets: Hollywood stars, whom he accuses of gross hypocrisy for promoting environmental causes while flying around in private jets. He points to Matt Damon’s anti-fracking drama Promised Land, which was backed in part by financing from the United Arab Emirates. And he mocks Josh Fox, the director of the anti-fracking documentaries Gasland and Gasland 2, for being a one-time New York-based actor.
Yet there is more than enough hypocrisy to go around: Levant is a critic of government support whose books have been published by a company that took plenty of government money until a recent change in ownership precluded the practice; a free-marketeer who works for a network that spent months last year trying to convince regulators to let it extract a monthly payment from every TV subscriber in the land.
At one point in Groundswell, Levant suggests activists are primarily driven by the salaries they receive. It’s a worldview that is so breathtakingly cynical that we’re left to wonder if Levant himself would blithely change his position for a fatter paycheque. If true, what kind of free-speech champion is that?
Simon Houpt is The Globe and Mail’s senior media writer.