Past as Prologue

A new collection highlights the history of the Massey lectures.

The year 1961 marked the launch of the Massey lectures. “Each year,” ran the official announcement, “the CBC will invite a noted scholar to undertake study or original research in his field and present the results in a series of half-hour radio broadcasts.” Naming the series in Vincent Massey’s honour was not just an acknowledgement of his public career; it was also a recognition of his role as sympathetic eminence grise at key points in the CBC’s history. As far back as 1928, for example, when Mackenzie King’s Liberal government set up a commission to look at the country’s nascent radio industry, Massey used his political weight to recommend two of the three commissioners, each known to be sympathetic to the idea of a government-owned network. He even personally defrayed the travel costs of the commission’s most important witness—a Canadian-born director at the BBC—whose arguments that a public broadcaster should be free of political interference helped determine the CBC’s administrative independence.1 During the early 1930s, Massey sponsored his own self-named lectures, arranging for them to be broadcast on the country’s fledgling radio network. Subsequently, as chair of the famous royal commission on the nation’s cultural industries, he defended the CBC from a welter of private sector complaints. The commission’s final report included a line that neatly encapsulates what would later become the raison d’être of the Massey series: “The popular talk should be in quality and authority comparable to the scholarly,” it noted, betraying the cadences and listening tastes of the commission’s chair. “In this matter Britain shares the fine tradition of France where even philosophers are expected to make themselves comprehensible to l’homme moyen raisonnable.”2

Despite its arch expression, the principle is one that Massey lecturers have largely kept in mind. Indeed, the success of the series stems from the fact that so many of its star acts have managed to juggle the demands of accessibility and academic authority. At least five sets of lectures have become acknowledged classics. Northrop Frye’s distillation of the practical relevance of literature in The Educated Imagination (1962) is the closest one gets to a Massey ur-text. Like-minded successors include Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology (1989), Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity (1991) and John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization (1995). A Short History of Progress (2004), Ronald Wright’s Zeitgeist-catching riff on technology, the environment and civilizational decay, is the most recent addition to the classics list.

That all five of these lecturers are Canadian is no coincidence. So integral has the series become to the country’s intellectual makeup that Canadian lecturers take up the Massey gauntlet with a finely tuned sense of the series’ demands and an appreciation that their audience expects far more than a thinly veiled rehash of past ideas. Such expectations have been less commonly satisfied by outsiders, who lack the requisite cultural hardwiring. If there has been a gradual upward trend in the quality of the lectures—an argument made by many long-time listeners and readers—this is partly due to the greater proportion of Canadian speakers. Another reason relates to the publishing side of the equation. Before the early 1980s, the CBC handled the job in-house—not the best use of corporation resources—with several of the early lectures falling through the cracks.3 Since the House of Anansi has taken on the task, with attractively produced books and sophisticated marketing, the fanfare accompanying each year’s publication often eclipses the earlier publicity for the broadcasts themselves.

Exactly how much the series has evolved in the past four and a half decades can be gauged by leafing through the early quintet republished in The Lost Massey Lectures. The list of contributors is impressive. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, American radical philosopher Paul Goodman and Martin Luther King Jr. all date from the 1960s. The 1970s are represented by social critic Jane Jacobs, the 1980s by Liberal maverick Eric Kierans. The lecturers naturally divide into two groups. The first three are acknowledged global stars, the latter pair well-known Canadians.

Galbraith’s The Underdeveloped Country (1965) reads like a graduate lecture in development economics, albeit by an engaging professor with an elegant rhetorical style. Using a classification developed at Harvard, Galbraith outlined three possible models of development and the primary challenges for countries following the paths in each. In sub-Saharan Africa the main obstacle, he argued, was cultural impoverishment; in Latin America it was entitlement-based incomes and in South Asia a shortage of capital. The temptation to imagine that South Asian conditions applied to all developing economies, said Galbraith, was a major mistake. He was pessimistic about Africa: “All discussion … must reckon with the possibility, and indeed the likelihood, that in some instances development will be impossible.” He held out more hope for Latin America, where liberal revolutions might overturn ruling elites. He was most optimistic about South Asia, rightly as it turned out. Galbraith’s analysis of African conditions now seems highly problematic and his reading of African prospects excessively sombre, but otherwise his is an astute analysis and an insightful set of predictions: a commendable feat.

In The Moral Ambiguity of America (1966), Goodman examined what he saw as imperial overreach in the Vietnam era. If nuclear Armeggedon could be averted, America was headed in one of two directions. Either its elites would succeed in maintaining an uneasy global peace or their role would diminish thanks to a wave of “reconstruction through conflict,” spurred by black emancipation and counterculture rebellion. As a co-founder of Gestalt therapy and an avowed anarchist, Goodman was particularly interested in the counterculture movement, his sympathy with its aims tempered by unease because of its lack of a firm revolutionary program, its vague existentialist lexicon and its streak of fashionable anti-intellectualism most evident in “jabber about LSD trips.” Still, he predicted the rebellion’s long-lasting impact: “Those who think it is the usual ‘generational revolt,’ that will be absorbed as the students get ‘older and wiser,’ are whistling in the dark.”

Similar themes reappear in King’s Conscience for Change (1967), delivered just months before his assassination. “Canada is not merely a neighbour to Negroes,” he began, showing his characteristic revivalist flair. “Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the north star. The Negro slave, denied education, de-humanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave if he survived the horrors of the journey could find freedom.” As he had often done before, King painted a biblical scenario of the long-term effects of the civil rights struggle, but one that reflected a more thoroughgoing call for change than many in his audience may have been prepared for: “The revolutionary spirit is already world wide. If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channelled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world.”

Reading each of these three sets of lectures today, one cannot help appreciate the challenges their authors faced in helping CBC organizers solidify the Massey mandate in the series’ early years. Of the trio, only Galbraith attempted to devise something original for his audience (was it a coincidence that he was native born and continued to observe the Canadian scene closely?)—and, even then, what he produced reeked a little too heavily of an Ivy League seminar room. Goodman managed a few nods in the direction of fresh insight in an otherwise predictable set of comments, while King’s tactic was to tack on new opening remarks to material already used in other contexts. Indeed, the last of his lectures was one of his sermons, delivered at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta on Christmas Eve 1967. That does not necessarily make the lectures unengaging to a contemporary audience. Far from it. Anyone reading Goodman’s lectures today, for instance, cannot help but be struck by the similarities between America’s imperial angst in the Vietnam era and its angst in ours. As for King’s lectures, one inevitably finds oneself comparing his views and oratory with that of his best-known present-day emulator, while marvelling at just how much Barack Obama owes to King’s vision and consummate rhetorical craft.

But these first three sets of lectures never shake off their status as interesting historical artefacts. By the next decade, we are in far different territory. In Canadian Cities and Sovereignty Association (1979), Jane Jacobs presented a pre-referendum defence of Quebec separatism that started with a tale of two cities: Toronto’s replacement of Montreal as the country’s principal urban centre. By the late 1970s, the sovereigntist cause offered Montreal the best chance to regain its economic lustre, said Jacobs. Employing a detailed portrait of Norway’s peaceful separation from Sweden as a roadmap, she argued that English Canadians should accept the logic of diverse nationhood as well. “Once we have come to feel in our bones that diversity is valid, then the vision of an artificially and uniformly bilingual Canada simply becomes arbitrary and silly.” As a set of lectures, Jacobs’s was never truly lost. It has lived on in published form, although not usually viewed as one of her major works. (Her central contention that Montreal could regain its former sway only at the expense of a united Canada now seems questionable at best.) But it was a courageous and adventurous piece of theorizing—one that elicited considerable criticism at the time.

Eric Kierans was also concerned with nationalism in Globalism and the Nation State (1983), but it was concern of the more conventional pan-Canadian variety. A response to the G7’s Williamsburg Summit and its globalist-infused communiqué, the lectures offered its author a heaven-sent opportunity to lob a few missiles at onetime allies (Pierre Trudeau was one of the leaders at Williamsburg) and to defend his own conversion to the view that the Canadian government had hopelessly compromised itself to American imperial rule. Kierans had little time for Canadian participation in regional trade deals or what he saw as the warped internationalism of organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the United Nations. Instead Canada should forge its own destiny through a policy program to overcome the country’s economic dependence on natural resources. For Kierans, political independence was key. “It is the political decision,” he noted, “that, for better or for worse, ends the bureaucratic quibbling, silences the squalling screams for privilege and preference, and alone can provide … order and stability.”

It is a revealing work—more personal apologia than systematic treatment. Kierans saw fit to add appendices to the reprinted lecture: not just the Williamsburg Summit statements, but, more tellingly, letters he exchanged with Trudeau back in 1971 when he resigned from Cabinet. As for the burgeoning domestic literature, much of it technical, that Kierans might have referred to in the economic discussion at the heart of his analysis, its existence is all but overlooked. This neglect points to a larger limitation—one that has often plagued the Massey series—the virtual impossibility of dealing with many esoteric topics without sacrificing accessibility. As in the case of Kierans, and often when dealing with scientific subjects, the Massey strategem has been to employ lecturers whose thinking conveniently sidesteps technicalities. Sometimes the results have been successful—one instance was the provocative metaphysical commentary of Nobel Prize–winning American biologist George Wald in Therefore Choose Life (1970). At other times—such as Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s unconventional critique of mainstream psychology in The Politics of the Family (1968)—the results were more dubious.

Kierans’s lectures are revealing in another respect. Like virtually all other political commentators asked to speak in the Massey forum, he was drawn from the left side of the spectrum. Within this range there has, of course, been some variety—everything from Galbraith’s High Church liberal orthodoxy to Goodman’s revolutionary gusto. But conservative viewpoints, by and large, have been shunned.4 This tendency is not surprising—the political climate within the upper echelons of CBC management has never been a secret. But, as a result, whole swaths of policy topics have had to be ignored. This territory includes some of the most important domestic political issues of the past quarter century. It is ironic that in a country that has seen such a string of policy innovations in the past 20 years—the free trade deals with the United States and Mexico, the Bank of Canada’s adoption of explicit inflation targeting (the first central bank in a large industrialized country to do so), the Chrétien government’s existentialist battle with budgetary deficits—these innovations have gone unremarked in the nation’s premier lecture series, except for glancing denigration by Kierans, Saul and a few others. Hopefully, change is on the way. It is notable that the 2006 lecturer was ethicist Margaret Somerville, whose conservative views have recently been a lightning rod for protest in some quarters. By featuring Somerville, Massey organizers showed they can be comfortable showcasing views antithetical to their own.

In any case, others have already stepped into the breach. These days, it is hard to mention the Massey lectures without also making reference to Grano—the Toronto-based series boasting a global who’s who of mostly right-leaning speakers (e.g., Christopher Hitchens, Samuel P. Huntingdon and Camille Paglia) performing in a well-lubricated setting to an invitation-only audience. The contrasts with Massey could not be clearer. Grano thrives on conservative politics, social exclusivity and unscripted badinage. Its organizers have reconceived the public lecture as beau monde entertainment. Sparks of spontaneity are part of the fun, even if they sometimes get out of hand. Most notorious was an episode in June 2007, when token American liberal icon Gore Vidal delivered an extraordinary excursus on Conrad Black’s character, marriage and legal difficulties that left many in the audience aghast at Vidal’s presumption and lack of taste. In the more well-mannered Massey context, such a fiasco would be unthinkable. Grano was not set up as a direct competitor to Massey, and its mandate is explicitly tied to international affairs, but the sense of friendly rivalry between the two series is palpable, especially with the release of Grano’s first compendium of lectures, American Power: Potential and Limits in the 21st Century (reviewed in the January/February 2008 issue of the LRC). If comparisons are going to be made, on most counts Massey must be judged the winner. Although Grano offers a welcome respite from Massey’s excess of self-satisfied liberal orthodoxy, the high-profile Grano acts, their lecture-circuit boilerplate rounded out by a few off-the-cuff remarks tailored to an upscale Toronto audience, are no match for Massey’s public-spirited national purpose, its well-honed traditions and its popular accessibility.

Most importantly, the Massey tradition is a living one. In the latest set of lectures, The City of Words (reviewed in the March 2008 issue of the LRC), writer and critic Alberto Manguel observes that “no literary text is completely unique, that it stems from previous texts, built on quotations and misquotations, on the vocabularies fashioned by others and transformed through imagination and use.” It is a principle continually re-evoked, explicitly or otherwise, in the Massey series. In The City of Words, for example, it is Frye’s The Educated Imagination and Robert Fulford’s provocative The Triumph of Narrative (1999) that hover most noticeably in the background, Manuel’s commentary on the elusivess of storytelling representing an elaboration of the former and a counterpoint to the latter. Such webs of allusion illustrate the richness of the Massey series as it nears its half century mark—the commitment to its original mandate undimmed and owing as much as it ever did to the complex legacy of its illustrious namesake.

  1. Karen Finlay, The Force of Culture: Vincent Massey and Canadian Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pages 194–95.  

  2. Quoted in Finlay, page 221.  

  3. Three sets of lectures were never published: George Wald’s Therefore Choose Life (1970), J. Tuzo Wilson’s Limits to Science (1975) and Leslie Fiedler’s The Inadvertent Epic (1978).  

  4. Massey organizers have featured Red Tory George Grant (1969), as well as a few political thinkers with hard-to-label views—including, besides Jacobs, radical continentalist Frank Underhill (1963), feminist political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain (1993), and Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien (1994).