Yearly Archives: 2009

A Sad Day for Canadian Democracy

I, like many other people, was unsurprised but depressed to hear about the prorogation of Parliament yesterday. Lots has been written on it, much of it very intelligent, some of it not.

Andrew Coyne has a fantastic piece about how, as Radiohead would sing, you do it to yourself and that Parliament has consistently allowed itself to become irrelevant through a thousand small cuts. He is also correct in asserting that only its members can make it relevant again.

Kady O’Malley probably has the best insight in this interview. Why prorogue yesterday? Why not wait until when the House comes back in January in case some emergency arose that required Parliament’s attention. The unusual timing suggests the government wants to avoid letting committees or Parliamentarians do their work (mostly likely on the Afghan detainee problem).

On the less inspired side is conservative blogger Stephen Taylor. Stephen has good post and does as good a job as anyone can expect defending the indefensible. But ultimately, nothing he says counters O’Malley’s point. Moreover, his attempt to suggest that proroguing is constitutionally required (not even the PMO is making this claim) and that it is only those in Opposition who are acting politically is demolished by Ibbitson’s deadly and even handed column on the subject (very much worth reading).

Let there be no mistake, this is a political move.

Just as it was back in 2003 when (as Ibbitson rightly points out) Chretien prorogued Parliament in 2003 to avoid critics of the sponsorship program. Note this was also the time when Chretien’s popularity began to slide… So do people care about the Afghan detainee problem? No (just like they didn’t initially care about the sponsorship scandal). They DO care when their government ceases to be accountable, when it runs and hides from its mistakes. Doing so irrevocably hurt Chretien. It may end up doing the same to this government.

Either way, as pretty much every columnist seems to be saying, today our democracy is a little weaker, and Parliament a little less relevant.

The Supreme Court of Canada: There are no journalists, only citizens

I’ll confess some confusion around the slant taken by several newspapers and media outfits regarding yesterday’s supreme court decision on defense of libel claims.

For those new to this story, yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a libel claim can be defeated even when the facts or allegations made turn out to be false (e.g. I don’t owe you money if I say something nasty and untrue about you) as long as the story was in the public interest and I met a certain standard around trying to ascertain the truth. In short, my intentions, not my output, is what matters most. This new line of defense has a fancy new name to go with it… the defence of responsible communication.

Boring, and esoteric? Hardly.

Notice how it isn’t called “the defence of responsible journalism?” (although, ahem, someone should let CTV know). This story matters as it demonstrates that the law is finally beginning to grasp what the internet means for our democracy and society.

Sadly, the Globe, CBC, National Post and CTV (indeed everyone with the exception of Colby Cosh at Macleans) all framed the decision as being about journalism and journalists.

It isn’t.

This is about all us – and our rights and responsible in a democracy in the internet age. Indeed, as if to hammer home this point the justices went out of their way to in their decision to essentially say: there is no such thing as “a journalist” in the legal sense.

A second preliminary question is what the new defence should be called.  In arguments before us, the defence was referred to as the responsible journalism test.  This has the value of capturing the essence of the defence in succinct style.  However, the traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists.  These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets.  I agree with Lord Hoffmann that the new defence is “available to anyone who publishes material of public interest in any medium” [paragraph 96]

and early they went ever further:

The press and others engaged in public communication on matters of public interest, like bloggers, must act carefully, having regard to the injury to reputation that a false statement can cause. [paragraph 62]

If you are going to say “blogger” you might as well say “citizen.”  All the more so when “publishing material of public interest in any medium” includes blogs, twitter, an SMS text message, a youtube video… mediums through which anyone can publish and broadcast.

Rather than being about journalism this case was about freedom of expression and about laying a legal framework for a post-journalism world. Traditional journalists benefit as well (which is nice – and there will still be demand for their services) but the decision is so much broader and far reaching than them. At its core, this is about what one citizen can say about another citizen, be that in the Globe, on CBC, on my blog, or anywhere. And rather than celebrate or connote any unique status upon journalist it does the opposite. The ruling acknowledges that we are all now journalists and that we need a legal regime that recognizes this reality.

I suspect some journalists will likely protest this post. But the ruling reflects reality. The notion of journalists as a professional class was and has always been problematic. There are no standards to guide the profession and no professional college to supervise members (as there is with the legal or medical profession). Some institutions take on the role of standard setting themselves (read journalism schools and media outlets) but they have no enforcement capacity and ultimately this is not a self-regulated profession. Rather, it has always been regulated by the courts. Technology has just made that more evident, and now the courts have too. Today, when speaking of others we are all a little better protected, and also have the burden of behaving a little more responsibly.

BC Government's blog on renewing the Water Act

On Friday the Government of British Columbia announced that it was beginning the process to renew the province’s water act. This is, in of itself, important and good.

More interesting however, is that the government has chosen to launch a blog to discuss ideas, prospective changes and generally engage the public on water issues.

It is, of course, early days. I’m not one to jump up and proclaim instant success nor pick apart the effort and find its faults after a single post. What I will say is that this type of experimentation in public engagement and policy development is long overdue. It is exciting to see a major government in Canada tentatively begin to explore how online technology and social media might enhance policy development as more (hopefully) than just a communication exercise. Even if it does not radically alter the process – or even if it does not go well – at least this government is experimenting and beginning learn what will work and what won’t. I hope and suspect other jurisdictions will be watching closely.

If you are such a government-type and are wondering what it is about the site that gives me hope… let me briefly list three things:

  1. Site design: Unlike most government websites which OVERWHELM you with information, menus and links, this one is (relatively) simple.
  2. Social media: A sidebar with recent comments! A tag cloud! RSS feed! Things that most blogs and website have had for years and yet… seem to elude government websites.
  3. An effective platform (bonus points for being open source): This may be the first time I’ve seen an official government website in Canada use wordpress (which, by the by, is free to download). When running a blog wordpress is certainly my choice (quite literally) and has been a godsend. The choice of wordpress also explains a lot of why point #2 is possible.

So… promising start. Now, what would I like to see happen around the government’s blog?

Well, if you want to engage the public why not give them data that you are using internally? It would be great to get recent and historic flow rate data from major rivers in BC. And what about water consumption rates by industry/sector but also perhaps by region and by city and dare we ask… by neighborhood? It would also be interesting to share the assumptions about future growth so that professors, thinktanks and those who care deeply about water issues could challenge and test them. Of course the government could share all this data on its upcoming Apps For Climate Change data portal (more on that soon). If we were really lucky, some web superstar like this guy, would create some cool visualization to help the public understand what is happening to water around the province and what the future holds.

In short, having a blog is a fantastic first start, but lets use it to share information so that citizens can do their own analysis using their own assumptions with the same data sets the government is using. That would certainly elevate the quality of the discussion on the site.

All in all, the potential for a site like this is significant. I hope the water geeks show up in force and are able to engage in a helpful manner.

Detailing the Vortex – Canada & Afghan Prisoners

Campbell Clark has a piece in the Globe today outlining in journalistic fashion how the machinery of the public service was disorganized and at odds with itself and thus, as a result, the truth and accountability become the first victim. I thought it was a good follow up for those who found my piece from yesterday on how Canada has entered a Bush-like vortex to be interesting.

Someone at the Globe thinks that this story has legs – which is good, since it is of paramount importance to Canadians. If a ministry as important as Foreign Affairs handling an issue as important as the war in Afghanistan can’t tell us where the buck stops then perhaps the model we presently have is broken.

I hope that this situation becomes a case study in Public Policy schools across the country. It is a classic example of the types of conflicts public servants regularly face: what to do when what a political master (or more senior public servant) wants to hear conflicts with all evidence and reality? And don’t think that Colvin was an isolated issue. Remember there were 21 other public servants in addition to Colvin who were subpoenaed by the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC) but did not testify. (As an aside: The MPCC – the committee that originally subpoenaed Richard Colvin and which the government tried to block from doing so – ultimately prompting MPs of the The House of Commons’ Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan to subpoena Colvin). Maybe they have nothing of interest to share. But suspect this is not the case – as if it were, why not just testify? Instead, I suspect they have stories that are similar to Colvin’s (or support his) but they fear for their careers too greatly. But for them all that testifying promises is the possibility of ending their careers and the risks of being forever marginalized by senior public servants who don’t want trouble with their political masters…

On that note, I’ll end by reposting an anonymous comment from yesterday’s Globe website that appeared under my article. Suspect there is another story here.

While it is to a far smaller degree on the marality scale, I can assure you all that this is a matter of routine in government/civil servant sectors. I work at CMHC and have been present at a meeting where we were directed as to the language we were to use in upcoming publications. The change was in direct conflict with our mandate to provide unbiased information to the public. When this concern was brought up and a request for written directions made, we were all told very directly that there would never be a written record of the meeting, or the directions.

As this policy remains in place, and we remain in violation of our own priniciples, the higher ups are having to scramble to cover themselves as dissatisfaction grows. The president recently had the director of our function `fall on his sword`over suggestions that it was her that had directed this change in policy.

We all await the next directive that allegedly doesn’t come from her via the PMO.

Has Canada entered a Bush-Like Vortex?

No new piece on eaves.ca today as I wrote a special for the Globe and Mail.

The piece is entitled Has Canada entered a ‘Bush-like vortex’? and explores how the Colvin testimony suggests the public service has become compromised in a critical way. Specifically, it suggests that increasingly, public servants are being forced to shape facts and the truth to fit a narrative already constructed by our government. It’s a dangerous path down which president Bush took the American public administration with disastrous results. Here, with out traditions of a greater separation between the political and the bureaucratic, the outcome could be even worse.

Anyway, you read it here on the Globe site. I’ll cross post it tomorrow.

My Unfinished Business Talk in Toronto

ocad logoI’m really pleased to share that I’ll be giving a talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design this January 14th, 2010. The talk is one I’ve been giving for government officials a fair bit of late – it is on how technology, open methodologies and social change are creating powerful pressures for reform within our government bureaucracies. The ideas in it also form the basis of a chapter I’ve written for the upcoming O’Reilly Media book on Open Government due out in January (in the US, assuming here in Canada too – more on this in a later post).

I completely thrilled to be giving a talk at OCAD and especially want to thank Michael Anton Dila for making this all happen. It was his idea, and he pushed me to make it happen. It is especially of Michael and OCAD since they have kept the talk free and open to the public.

The talk details are below and you can register here. More exciting has been the interest in the talk – I saw that 100 tickets disappeared in the first 4 hours yesterday – people care about government and policy!

We have much unfinished business with our government – look forward to digging into it.

ABOUT UNFINISHED BUSINESS

The Unfinished Lecture is a monthly event hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD and sponsored by Torch Partnership. Part of the Unfinished Business initiative, the lectures are intended to generate an open conversation about strategic innovation in the business and design of commercial enterprises and public organizations.

AFTER THE COLLAPSE: Technology, Open and the Future of Government

What do Facebook, 911 and NASA all have in common? They all offer us a window into how our industrial era government may be redesigned for the digital age. In this lecture David Eaves will look at how open methodologies, technology and social change is reshaping the way public service and policy development will be organized and delivered in the future: more distributed, adaptive and useful to an increasingly tech savvy public. Whether a interested designer, a disruptive programmer, a restless public servant or a curious citizen David will push your thinking on what the future has in store for the one institution we all rely on: Government.
As a closing remark, I’d also like to thank Health Canada & Samara, both of who asked me to put my thoughts on this subject together into a single talk.
Hope to see you in Toronto.

Articles I'm Digesting 15/12/2009

Here are some pieces I’ve been reading of late:

You Can’t Handle the Truth by Mark Pothier in the Boston Globe

A great piece about how the classification of drugs used by most Western countries is completely divorced from how much harm those drugs cause. This isn’t surprising, but as the evidence begins to mount regarding which drugs are actually harmful (read alcohol, cocaine or heroine) versus those which are significantly less harmful (read Ecstasy or LSD) the question will increasingly emerge – will science ever inform our policies around managing these types of substances. Indeed, it is disturbing (and, er… sobering) to once again see the only  substance I use the list – alcohol – be put in such a stark and negative light.

At some point a real conversation about drugs is going to occur in the United States – I just hope it is sooner rather than later as it will have a profound effect on effectively we can deal with the tragic situation we have around substance abuse this side of the border.

Fla. Court Tells Judges and Lawyers to “Unfriend” Each Other (the AP)

Always fascinating to see how different fields respond to social networking. In this case a Florida…

…committee ruled Nov. 17 that online “friendships” could create the impression that lawyers are in a special position to influence their judge friends.

This is a great example of how social networking can cause some professions to actually become less transparent and, I would argue, harms the long term credibility of the institution. Notice here that the committee isn’t ruling that judges and lawyers can’t be friends, they are ruling that it would be harmful if the public could see that they are friends. So, in essence, if being a friend compromises the judgment of a judge, we solve that by preventing the public from seeing that the conflict could exist, rather than dealing with the conflict. Weird.

The last line is priceless:

McGrady, who is sending a copy of the ruling to the 69 judges in his circuit, said this potential conflict of interest is why he doesn’t have a Facebook page.

“If somebody’s my friend, I’ll call them on the phone,” he said, chuckling.

Errr, right. Good to keep it all in the old boys network where those on the inside know where the conflict may lie, but there is not digital trail or map that might allow the public to be better informed… Oh, and you’re the last generation that will only “pick up the phone” so this solution has, at best, a 20 year shelf life to it.

The Killer App of 1900 by Glenn Fleishman in Publicola

As some readers know, I’m a big fan of historical examples that show we are experiencing similar pressures, transformations, evolutions as experienced in the past. Part of it is the historian in me, part of it is how it helps ease the minds of those concerned or intimidated by change. There are, occasionally, genuinely new things that appear under the sun – but often those of us interested in technology and social change are too quick to scream “This is new! It changes everything!” Moreover, it does a disservice to our efforts often making people more skeptical, resistant and generally conservative towards the perceived change. Still more importantly, the past often sheds light on how power and influence created by a new technology or system may diffuse itself – who will be the winners/losers and the resisters.

In this context this article is a priceless example of the type of writing I wish I did more of.

The Score: Advice to Young Composers by Annie Gosfield in the New York Times

While written as sounds advice for composers, this is (as the friend who sent it to me said) sounds advice for policy wonks or, in my opinion, bloggers as well. (It’s actually just sounds advice for life).

A couple of credos in the piece that I hope my work, and this blog lives by:

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously: Hope that is evident in my writing style.

Be willing to put yourself and your music on the line: Try to do that everyday here on the blog.

Don’t fear rejection: Something a blog is really good at teaching you.

A couple of credos in the piece I know I struggle with:

Don’t assume you know what’s accessible to the audience and what isn’t: Although counter to what the piece says, I occasionally run into a friend who says “I had NO idea what you were talking about in X blog post.” It is crushing to hear – but also really good. I do want to challenge readers but I also want to be accessible. Do let me know if I ever get to a place where a newbie is going to be totally lost.

Details count: So, er, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I have the occasional typo in a post, here or there… Blogging longish pieces four times a week is draining, and so I don’t proof as much as I could (plus it is hard to see one’s own errors). But I could do better.

Hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I did!

Some Thoughts on the Walrus Response

Here is a response to Jeremy Keehn (Senior Editor at the Walrus) thoughtful response to my post The Walrus, Fair Dealing, and the Culture of Journalism this morning.

A few leading points.

1) I’d like to echo Jeremy’s request, if there is a literary-loving Web 2.0 billionaire out there interested in endowing the Walrus, please click here.

2) While my original post refers to The Walrus, I definitely want to be clear – the challenge of not participating in the online link economy is endemic among main stream media publishers generally. Most main stream media never link away from their site (except, oddly, on their “blogs” which are somehow treated differently…)

At the risk of misrepresenting Jeremy (not my intention) I’m going to edit his piece down so as to respond to some specific arguments as to why the Walrus doesn’t link or cite in print. Worse still, I may make a suggestion or two.

First, in print:

It was more a question of how including that information would affect the flow of the narrative, and what readers needed to know for the quotation to have its intended effect. Insofar as I was making a conscious decision as an editor, I would have been asking myself whether mentioning eaves.ca bolstered the authority of the quotation or added narrative value. Ultimately, I concluded that David’s credentials were all readers needed to know. In hindsight, I might have chosen otherwise, in part because the quotation wasn’t a spoken one, and in part because this is a rare instance where the source actually ended up caring.

This I completely get. It is important that the piece read easily. Reading this I see how much the web has changed how I read – I look for “links” now even when reading a print edition of something. (Wow it is hard to have this discussion without sounding ungrateful for the quote – hoping that is still coming through – this is a discussion about the culture of journalism as it plays at out that Walrus, not about the quality or intentions of the Walrus)

Online linking:

David also asks in his post why The Walrus hasn’t linked to his blog in the online version of the story. “When The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision,” he writes. “They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website — which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting.”

I (guiltily) jumped to a conclusion there – should have led with more inquiry. Jeremy explains that this is because:

We don’t go in and insert links into our magazine pieces because we don’t have the resources, and because the decisions about what and where to link would be difficult and time-consuming to navigate, especially given that we rely on freelance writers, who might have opinions about what should be linked to or not. It’s certainly not policy.

However, this is where things become a little harder for me to decipher.

On the one hand the no-linking at the Walrus seems to be due to limited resources (this I understand and respect). However, tracking down and inserting the links into my blog for the webpages the Walrus piece references took me 45 minutes – and that was without the benefit of having the author on hand who mostly likely has them in their notes. An intern could find and insert the links into a piece in 30 minutes. This may still be too onerous but the benefit to readers feels significant. But this calculus becomes even easier if the Walrus simply asked authors to supply the links (the task would then drop to mere minutes). Moreover, the costs of consistency feel pretty low. People are unlikely to be upset of The Walrus over linking… they’ll just not click on them. Plus, The Walrus’s authors probably have the best sense of what is interesting and should be linked to… why not simply trust them?

On the other hand, the above sentence hints that the no-linking is also due to the fact that getting a clear consistent policy would be difficult – especially with so many freelance writers in play. I read this as saying that The Walrus is claiming it is better off not linking than having potentially inconsistent linking. Why not start simple with bare bones policy: Every time The Walrus quotes someone, and that quotation is available from an original source online, the author should endeavor to link to it. The great thing about being online is different than print. Omissions are easy and quick to fix. If the author misses some link, an intrepid reader may email The Walrus the link (especially if you ask them to) at which point an intern could add it.

There are advantages to this. Over time, by looking at The Walrus’s web stats the editorial staff will see what their readers click on, and so what they find useful and be sure to include more of those types of links in the future. The value add for readers might become significant, At the moment, the Walrus has no idea what its readers find interesting in the pieces they read other than what they say in comments (and far, far fewer people comment than click on links they like).

Finally, this should be applauded but is not a defense:

We do plenty of linking on our blogs, and the magazine’s Twitter feed (not to mention my own) is generally abuzz with links to and from other media.

Two thoughts: First what is the policy around linking on The Walrus blogs? And providing links in Twitter is great (I do like how The Walrus twitter account points to interesting pieces everywhere). The point here is that (online) readers have a world to explore in every article The Walrus publishes – if they are given a chance to explore it through hyperlinks – hyperlinks that are embedded in the text where their mice and eyes are at the moment of reading.

The Walrus, "Fair Dealing" & the Culture of Journalism

Last month, in its November/December issue, The Walrus magazine had an excellent piece by Gil Shochat on government, transparency and access to information entitled The Dark Country. (notice the hyperlink…) If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now. It is devastating in its analysis and absolutely dead on. We need radical reform around how we access government information – something we have been trying to begin to pioneer here in Vancouver – and this piece taps into the roots of that need. (The part on Abousfian Abdelrazikwhom Canadian public servants openly talked about as at risk of being assassinated by Sudanese Intelligence operatives – is particularly dark.)

I first heard about the piece when friends emailed and called me to say they enjoyed my quote. It was (and is!) great news to get. Great, because from the sounds of the quote it seemed like something I might write, was in context, and it is nice to be noticed by others for one’s thinking and advocacy.

It turns out that the quote is from a relatively long and quite popular blog post I wrote a few months back titled Open Data – USA vs. Canada in which I outline some theories regarding why open data and government transparency has gained more traction in the US than Canada. Specifically, about halfway through the piece I wrote:

The [Canadian] government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers [the Queen's]. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.

Which brings me back to The Walrus. I’m thrilled that they included the above quote in their piece. I’ve been working hard to advocate for government transparency and open data, and so a quotation is both a nice acknowledgment of that work and a great way to reach a wider audience. However, why not link to my piece in the online edition? Or mention that it was published on eaves.ca in the print edition like Andrew Potter did in his Macleans column? (although no online link…)

There could be an argument – under copyright law – that to quote my piece under Fair Dealing (Fair Use for Americans), The Walrus should attribute the source (in this case, my blog). But even without a reference to Fair Dealing, there is something deeper, something about the culture of journalism, that would lead you to believe they would want to link.

One of the hallmarks of journalism has been its collaborative nature. Frequently, stories build on previous works. Discovering a scandal is often not the work of a single reporter, but the culmination of many peoples’ work. This is why I’ve always admired journalists’ willingness to attribute. Long before the Internet, there existed a “link economy” in the press, where reporters cited the work of those who came before them who had helped them break or uncover a story. Sometimes this was done grudgingly, but it was done irregardless.

The internet, and especially the blogosphere, has a similar phenomenon, often referred to as the aforementioned “link economy.” Bloggers and writers link to what others sites, knowing that may mean people click away from our website – but secure in the knowledge that if we send them somewhere interesting, they’ll be back for more. Remember the most viewed website in the world is dedicated to sending people to other sites; it’s called Google.

So let’s be clear, when The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision. They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website – which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting. This makes their website less interesting (and is why I don’t visit it – I visit websites with external links, ’cause I like to explore ideas — in both the literal and internet surfing sense).

So what richness did readers miss out on in this case? Well of course, none of The Walrus‘s readers even know that I wrote a piece that they could read with the click of a mouse. But beyond my own self-interest, there’s much more that could have been included:

  • The Globe piece containing a quote about detainees can be found here.
  • The Access to Information Act is referenced (and is central to the piece); it might be interesting to link to it.
  • James Travers, whose Hill Times piece entitled Conservative Prime Minister Harper’s highly-touted federal Accountability Act a recipe for more broken rules (phew!) also goes unmentioned and unlinked.
  • Reporter Stephen Maher does have his piece mentioned (“Ottawa Is Sending Me into a Black Rage”), along with its publication (Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald). However, one can’t fault The Walrus for not linking to them since… It doesn’t appear that the Chronicle-Herald keeps anything online after 2 weeks, and their library, which offers to help you find articles, has this for a webpage.
  • Also of interest is the report by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Newspaper Association that shows we are behind Mexico, Pakistan and India in access to government information – no link again, although it can be found here. (And this was hard to find in Google/Internet terms.)
  • There’s more, but you get the point…

The point being, that if you don’t link to others, you are making it harder for your readers to delve deeper, and therefore to care more deeply about the subjects you’re writing about. In an online world, you are effectively acting as though all knowledge about the issue resides on your page. This is absurd. As a result, not linking to others feels not only like a violation of good journalism standards, and of the most basic codes of conduct on the internet, it’s a poor business decision.

This is because when you don’t link, others won’t link to you either. Consequently, you sit outside the conversation. As Taylor Owen and I wrote in Missing The Link (which we offered to The Walrus as the basis for a piece – though they declined):

The staff writers of The New York Times, while certainly talented, are not the beginning and end of news. Pretending that they are is laughable, and their customers know it. Consequently, simply recreating newspapers online won’t work. Americans may be interested in living in gated communities, but they don’t want to surf within them. Web pages that interlink with others are more likely to be visited because readers will know that in addition to the base content or analysis, they will also be pointed to interesting material, both within the site and outside. Isolated news pages will invariably remain just that—cut off.

And that sums up The Walrus‘s site – cut off. Which is sad, because Gil Shochat’s piece is completely brilliant.

Update 11:31am: Jeremy Keehn – senior editor at The Walrus (as well as very smart man, and someone I consider a friend) responds in this thoughtful post. Going to reflect on his comments – hope to have some intelligent to add in a bit.

Why David Suzuki Matters

Last night I had the enormous privilege of being able to attend David Suzuki’s “The Legacy Lecture.” The lecture which took place at the Chan Centre out at the University of British Columbia was premised on a simple idea: If I had one last lecture to give, what would I say?

I confess I’ve never seen David Suzuki speak in person – and he is compelling. Yes, he is a skilled orator – especially when he relaxes, jokes with us and is self-deprecating – but that isn’t what really struck me while watching him speak, alone, on stage.

What struck me was how David Suzuki has always managed to have an appeal to me and my friends – that he has spoken to and engaged us right from when we were little, to today, when we are (mostly) adults. This is no small feat. Having grown up at the tail end of Gen X (or front end of Gen Y – depends who you ask) I would say that if one thing defines this cohort it is a constant (sometimes important and sometimes vicious) sense of ironic detachment from almost everything. As a teenager my media exposure to stories and people “who were me” were found in films like Reality Bites, Pump up the Volume, Singles, Office Space, Swingers, or Fight Club, where the characters lived in worlds that are far from ideal, or worse unraveling, and in which the leads had limited (if any) control. More importantly, these characters all struggled to believe in anything and to genuinely become part of something. Detachment: that is our thing. There is a reason Seinfeld was so iconic.

Boomers, of course, have a cliched lament that we don’t protest, and sing protest songs. But, (and this will be odd to hear for those who know me) it wasn’t through politics that I became aware of this difference, instead, our collective detachment came home to me while listening to my Dad’s favourite (and now mine too) Ramsey Lewis albums where often the crowd can be heared enthusiastically clapping and singing alone. For most Gen Xers this would require a sense of presence and a willingness to submit to an immediate sense of community, or a moment, that is simply – and for reasons that are not totally clear to me – uncomfortable.

But this is what, I think, David Suzuki has been able to do his entire career. In a quiet and intense way, he enabled Gen Xers to watch his show without the need to be ironically detached. His message – the environment – his mode of inquire – science – and his humble but unrelenting approach appealed to boomers yes, but more importantly, and rarer among CBC type presenters, it appealed to the rest of us. Rare among his generation was an ability to connect, even with those who sometimes shunned being connected with.

Sitting in that theater and watching him speak, that talent came crashing home. With David, I still listen critically (we don’t lose that facility) but, I don’t feel the need to be ironically detached. I enjoy being part of the community he creates and want to enjoy the moment and even feel emotionally connected.

It’s a brave thing to give a legacy lecture. To lay out everything you believe you have been, are and will be, and then share that publicly. But alone, and somewhat naked up there on stage, I got a real insight into why I – and I believe so many of my friends – love David Suzuki. That even if they sometimes call him Dr. Doom & Gloom he still reaches out to us, makes us think, and wants us to feel part of something bigger, greater and more beautiful than we knew. And for those of us who grew up in the 80′s and 90′s that is a gift that cannot be underestimated.