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Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
— Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
In my younger days, I wrote angry op-eds on topics such as the need to reform our desperately flawed health-care system. For a time, I was one of those go-to left-wing commentators – you can find us in every media's Rolodex to offer a progressive perspective. I marched in demonstrations, I led reform coalitions and in my late 20s, I even ran for Parliament (an endeavour admittedly doomed to failure from the start – standing as the NDP's sacrificial lamb in a riding with Canada's highest per-capita income). I considered myself a radical, a reformer, something of an outsider with ideas of social justice that needed – nay, demanded – a hearing.
I've practised these ideals throughout my life as husband, father, professor, volunteer and now into my retirement years. Or that's what I thought until I encountered journalist Chris Hedges.
Reading this Pulitzer prize-winner's Death of the Liberal Class caused me to question my self-designated revolutionary status. (If there's one thing that retirement offers, it's plenty of time to read.) He traces the life course of the progressive movement and convincingly shows how, since the early 1900s, academe, the church, the independent media and trade unions – society's supposed voices of radicalism and its primary critics – have gradually become apologists for powerful vested interests. They have, under the guise of "becoming relevant," of "change from within," of "pragmatism," sold out their cause and, therefore, their souls and roles. Hedges would tell you that they (and, by extension, I) have succumbed to the need to belong, all of us yearning to be members of Groucho Marx's infamous club to which we should not want to belong.
The book left my already questioned self-worth in tatters. Have the tides of age swept away my radicalism? Have I, through countless choices in the face of life's family and work dilemmas, ended up far from the radical persona of which I was once so proud? Even worse, have I deceived myself? Have I maintained this personal myth by embedding myself in ever more staid institutions with colleagues and friends ever more representative of the mainstream?
Whereas once I sat on the board of community health centres, now I advise committees of the Royal Society. Whereas before I could count all manner of rebels and immoderates among my friends, now I consort with ex-deputy ministers, hospital CEOs and foundation board members. Perhaps I retain my self-perceived revolutionary zeal only by comparison with them. Is it really such a plaudit to be called "Lefty Lomas" by a retired adviser to a former conservative prime minster? As with the proverbial frog boiled to death in slowly heating water, perhaps I have, without realizing it, drifted far to the right of where my journey began.
What particularly hit me was his critique of latter day academe – my life's career. He told me that the zeitgeist of our times is to use the mantle of relevance to suck universities into the orbit of corporatist interests. Private funding for private interest masquerades as the university connecting to its local or wider society. This critique really stung. It seems that throughout my years of fighting for relevance in research, my support for the public intellectual, my campaigns for "linkage and exchange" between those within the academy and those outside, I was merely an unknowing hand maiden to the world of commerce. Long ago, apparently, I exchanged the rags of radicalism for a cloak of illusory consequence.
Thank God for William Deverell then – one of a handful of novelists from whose pen I drink thirstily and as often as he is willing to put it to paper. (Did I tell you already? Reading is retirement's greatest pleasure.)
In his court-room drama, I'll See You In My Dreams, the protagonist is an exceptionally bright Indigenous man, Gabriel Swift. Gabriel's journey in the novel is one of transformation – from young radical communist to aging academic advancing the cause of indigenous culture. At the outset, in the grip of extremism, he is totally marginalized and eventually silenced through a significant jail term. Later in life, postjail, he becomes a public intellectual, celebrated by the cognoscenti and seen by radical groups around the world as a leader. His association with the academy leavens his radicalism and leads him to have influence and impact – without excessive compromise. Near the end, he reflects on this life course: "Gods have failed, though ideals survive. What I was, I no longer entirely am. But that is the way of growth. Maturity comes slowly, arrives too late. And then we are old."
For me, verging on old, in search of relief from Hedges's onslaught on my self worth, Gabriel's life stands as testament to the value of a maturing radicalism. A life that yields belonging and impact, not exclusion and marginalization. I concluded my time in the academy with accolades – honorary doctorates, fellowships in societies, even an Order of Canada. But I can't help thinking, might those just have been the baubles of Beelzebub, rewards for compliance?
Who should I take as totem in evaluating my life: Gabriel Swift with his tempered radicalism or Chris Hedges, the uncompromising outsider? Am I frittering away the luxury that is my early retirement, thoughtlessly foregoing the glorious opportunity to re-engage with the mischievousness of radical youth? Or, am I indulging in deserved relaxation following a hectic life spent on pragmatic, incremental reform? I'm really not sure. I'll let you know later, once I've done a bit more reading.
Jonathan Lomas lives in Victoria.