Mo’ Better Blues: The Improbable Arc of Fred Litwin
“There is no word for the sound a life makes.”
― Howard Jacobson, The Making of Henry
The introduction to Fred Litwin wide-ranging memoir and authorial début, Conservative Confidential: Inside the Fabulous Blue Tent (one of Hill Times’ 17 Political Books to Read this Fall), begins, in part, with a confession:
Coming out is something I’ve had to do my entire life. When I finally came out as a gay man in the early 1980s, it was a daunting task, but it turned out to be far easier than I expected. Coming out years later as a conservative proved far more vexing.
An Ottawa-based former IT-executive, Litwin is a man who defies easy classification: a gay conservative who runs a blues record label, NorthernBlues Music, and a film society, The Free Thinking Film Society. His journey has taken him from the socialism of his Montreal-Jewish upbringing to a heterodox conservatism that makes him a thorn in the side of all the hues in the political spectrum.
The model for a socialist having a Pauline Road to Damascus moment where the light of conservatism marked an ardent turn is David Horowitz’s Radical Son, considered “one of the key political autobiographies of the twentieth century.” In fact, Litwin credits Horowitz’s The Politics of Bad Faith as having “challenged everything about my outlook.” Unlike Horowitz, or the playwright David Mamet (he of the infamous Village Voice screed, Why I am No Longer A ‘Brain Dead Liberal’), Litwin’s account is muted in its triumphalism without pulling punches, and heady with a hope in “freedom and democracy” that is earnest.
You probably have heard of Litwin if you recall the Canada-wide media coverage of the imbroglio over the screening of the documentary Iranium, which the host, Library and Archives Canada cancelled under pressure from the then Canadian Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, before having it reinstated through orders from the Minister’s Office at the Department of Canadian Heritage. The behind-the-scenes retelling of this episode, coupled with the Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) clarification of bureaucratic obfuscation make for a compelling and sobering read. The stakes are higher than just a blizzard in the Ottawa snow globe, and Litwin convinces you that it is so.
The scene played in American Sniper where Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle stares transfixed and vacantly as the television plays the grisly events of 9/11 live is one shared by many around the globe. Litwin was no different. It would mark his fissure with the Left for good. This was a man who’d “particularly loved reading Chomsky when I was high on pot,” affirming the necessary 60s stereotypical bonafides. Litwin blames, what he characterizes in his book as, a myopic self-hatred by Leftists that was both morally and intellectually unsatisfying as a response following the 9/11 attacks.
As someone who gradually evolved to the right, but still caring deeply about gay rights, Litwin repeatedly comes across in his book emphasizing the normalcy of being gay and states, “gay people worry about most of the same issues that straight people do.” This often put him at odds with what he viewed as a small gay media consortium dominating the Canadian mediascape that Litwin categorizes as ideological rather than principled; happier to push a radical Leftist agenda than succour gay civil rights. He is at his most scathing of mainstream gay leadership as he writes,
Gay people were being executed in places like Iran, and we were marching in assless chaps. Gay people have absolutely no rights and no legal protection in large parts of the world, but we were concerned with crack pipes, “twincest” pornography, whether there is some other letter to add to the end of LGBTQ, and how much sex workers should be charging for their services. We condemn Israel, the only gay-friendly country in the Middle East, but point out the persecution of gay people in Muslim-majority countries and you will be written off as a pinkwashing homonationalist. While jihadists were throwing gay men from the roofs of tall buildings in Iraq and Syria, we were condemning western society for its hostile heteronormativity. (125)
Litwin’s love for Israel is evident in his defence of it throughout the book, but he is equally at pains in defending the vast majority of Muslims around the world, who “need our help [in fighting extremism], and not our condemnation.” He rejects the counter-jihad underbelly of conservatism that seeks to characterize Islam itself as “unrepentantly evil,” thus falsely conflating it with “Islamism.” This to Litwin, would be buying into the extremists’ narrative hook, line, and sinker. The braying right can sometimes drown out the moderate Muslim majority:
You’ll never hear about these voices from the anti-Islam right and its counter-jihad propagandists. They’ll never let on about the width and depth of resistance to Islamism amongst Muslims. You’d never know about the work of anti-Islamist Muslims helping police forces thwart the many terrorist attacks attempted by Islamists in North America. (172)
By basically placing the plague of anti-Semitism as an European-Christian import into the Arab world, Litwin inadvertently glosses over Christian philosemitism over the centuries. This includes the remarkable changes in the past half-century in Christendom that arguably makes present-day religious Christians, excepting perhaps Indian Hindus, as the most pro-Jewish goyim at any time in recorded history. In addition, while taking care to describe the diversity within groups, I wished that Litwin could have further explored the distinctions within the Left, pace Paul Berman, as well.
For many of the critiques Litwin makes, he gives ample reasoning. There was one in particular I disagreed with: bilingualism. Twice, Litwin mentions that public servants “were getting promoted more on the basis of language ability than on the basis of merit.” This overlooks something important, namely, that language ability is inherently part of said merit. French has been a founding fact in Canada, and it is not going away. Given the discrimination that Francophones have faced both legally and culturally until the latter third of the twentieth century, I am sure Litwin would have sympathy with their history, given the primacy of language to one’s identity. While the ridiculous antics of Québec’s language police get sensationalized, the basic right and dignity of the protection and promotion of the French language is unassailable. It forms part of the peace forged by federalism. As Graham Fraser points out in his incisive Sorry I Don’t Speak French, the goal of bilingualism was not to achieve perfect fluency from coast to coast, but a modest (and just) one of allowing Canadians to be equally served in either by their federal government. To give but two examples, in Turkey today where speaking Kurdish is banned in parliament and otherwise suppressed, and the censorship of the beautiful Bengali language in East Pakistan in the 1950s (pre-Bangladesh), Canada’s model, however imperfect, is one worthy of emulation.
While Litwin is critical about the nation’s public broadcaster on its anti-Israel bias, he has no wish to privatize it or otherwise weaken its core mandate: he castigates the Conservative for failing “to set any strategic direction,” adding that its “unconscionable to let the CBC just hang there and try to figure things out on its own.” Even as Litwin speaks highly of many Conservatives that he has known and has worked with he professes to be an agnostic:
Unfortunately, by the time I sat down to write this book, the Conservative Party had come to feel like an ideological strait-jacket. The Conservative Party had become more concerned with the Conservative Party than with ordinary people. I’ll probably let my party membership lapse. (175)
When one reads through the list of items the Litwin wants to reform or impose in the books closing pages, they are so varied, so hard to conveniently pigeon-hole, yet consistent with the principle of fairness that Litwin exudes throughout his experience. If you want a fascinating window into the difference a grassroots cultural and political idealism makes in an era where cynicism reigns, don’t miss this read.
Daniel Bezalel Richardsen is the founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’s largest independent literary celebration. He immigrated to Canada from Brunei Darussalam at 18 and was the former Press Secretary to Canada’s Minister of International Development.
Prince Arthur Herald