Monday, June 16, 2008

Jian Ghomeshi: A Deep Breath of New LIfe for Canadian Culture

15 June 2008, updated 16 June 2008, 20 September 2009, 21 March 2011 & 31 October 2014

(This article was originally posted on June 15, 2008. Very recently, multiple women have come forward publicly to disclose Mr. Ghomeshi's consistent pattern of physically abusive behaviour towards them. I have decided to leave the article unchanged, but there is an addendum at the close of the article, addressing the issue of Mr. Ghomeshi's allegedly abusive pattern of behaviour. In brief, it has quickly become clear that he has problems with understanding consent and behavioural boundaries in general.)

Jian Ghomeshi has been growing on me.

Here's how far I've come.

I have been a regular CBC Radio listener since moving to Canada in December 1971. I am (or have been) a devotee of Don Harron, Peter Gzowski, Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland, Lister Sinclair, Arthur Black, Michael Enright, Rex Murphy, Rick MacInnes-Rae, Holger Petersen, Eleanor Wachtel, Nora Young, Randy Bachman, Bob McDonald, Stuart McLean, Rick Phillips, James Keelaghan, Andrea Ratuski... and many more.

I am also an opponent of the CBC cutbacks, which have been ongoing since I arrived in Canada.

While I hold to post-liberal, quasi-libertarian views about the need for governments to do less with respect to economic management and business development, I am a huge advocate of high quality infrastructure - in my view, that is what governments do best. Top calibre infrastructure is critical to all aspects of quality of life in free societies.

In my view, CBC Radio represents the cultural infrastructure of Canada. The CBC has always done its job right - exceedingly well, in fact.

Because CBC Radio is important to me (I'm not a television watcher), I hold high expectations for this institution. I have often commented that giving up the CBC is the main thing that stops me from moving back to the United States (though I suppose the CBC is now available as a Sirius satellite radio channel or as a podcast - both forms of media which I am unlikely to use unless my life slows down quite a bit from its present pace).

Therefore, when Jian Ghomeshi launched a new arts-culture-entertainment show aimed at Generation X-Y sensibilities, my immediate response was instinctively negative - and visceral. I felt sickened.

(My longstanding deepest and darkest fear is of ending my days in an anonymous seniors' residence staffed by members of a younger generation who would play heavy metal, rap and hiphop music in the background 24 hours a day!)

Ghomeshi's radio program Q (named, I believe, for the Studio from which it is broadcast) first aired on April 16, 2007. For the first several weeks, if not months, I couldn't stand the show. I used to shut Gomeshi off and listen to Segovia on my car's CD player.

I can tell you exactly what I found annoying about Ghomeshi as well. To my ears (never having seen him) he had all the aggravating traits of a pierced and tattooed, trend-following, know-nothing 20 or 30-something. He was too self-conscious. He laughed at himself excessively.

Ghomeshi was not targeting his show at my generational stratum, and he had some rough spots which seriously annoyed me.

Fast forward to June 2008.

I can now honestly state that my perception of Ghomeshi has evolved to the point that he has become perhaps my favourite current CBC Radio personality.

I haven't enjoyed anyone this much at the CBC since the days of Peter Gzowski, whom I only once met in person (Mr. Gzowski was too preoccupied jonesing for a smoke at a Frontier College literacy fundraiser to be in a position to make casual conversation; Gzowski read several of my letters on air, in particular some thoughts I had about Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion - and I'm quite satisfied with that).

What triggered my turnaround on Ghomeshi?

In brief, it was Ghomeshi's interviews. Not only did he have a knack for asking the right question and pressing the right point - which of course was always Gzowski's strength; he also had the ability to build upon the rapport he established with his guests to enable them to be direct and candid with us as radio listeners.

I had taken an initial dislike to Ghomeshi's personality - but Ghomeshi's interviews weren't about him. In fact, he has proven to be strikingly unself-centred. Ghomeshi's interviews were thoroughly about his guests, and that was refreshing.

Additionally, his guests are not all 20 and 30-somethings. I discovered - to my surprise - that he can keep pace with senior "heavyweight" interviewees as well.

So how much time do I now waste listening to Ghomeshi interviews?

Zero. The time is simply not wasted.

This guy is asking the questions I would ask if I knew what questions to ask.

And I confess - I don't know how to approach people in the way that Ghomeshi does. In fact, very, very few of us do. And this is why we need the Gzowskis - and the Ghomeshis - of the world.

The unique but limited cadre of insightful interviewers - among whose numbers I count Ghomeshi as an elite member - demonstrate a deep love and respect for the human spirit, and they reveal it in their conversations, bringing us, their listeners, closer to that place of heightened awareness which they inhabit. It is a good place to be.

Ghomeshi has defined arts, culture and entertainment broadly for his new radio program. Broadly enough that quite a few of his guests hold no intrinsic interest for me... until Ghomeshi talks to them, that is.

Whether it is an aspiring hiphop artist (not a genre that interests me), Katee Sackhoff and Grace Park of Battlestar Galactica (I'm a science fiction fan, and this program - after I first learned about it on "Q." - turned out to be top notch science fiction), or Salman Rushdie, for goodness sake - this fellow brings his guests alive!

While I don't remember much about the interview with the aspiring hiphop artist, I'll acknowledge that the Sackhoff-Park interview brought me around - despite the fact that both of these persons are 20 or 30-somethings. Though I am a science fiction afficianado, I had never thought twice about taking time to watch a remake of Battlestar Galactica. I am interested in what I call "authentic" or "classic" science fiction, the primary function of which is to explore the implications of ideas by constructing future scenarios which allow those ideas to play out in possibly complex and interesting ways.

Recycled 1970s science fiction "cheese" didn't capture my imagination. That is, until I was surprised to hear Ghomeshi, Sackoff and Park discussing how such contemporary issues as suicide bombing, civilian versus military government, detention of unlawful combatants, and the capacity of the human heart for far-reaching and complex manifestations of evil and good, are treated in what I later discovered to be a highly relevant, brilliantly scripted and acted program (produced in large part in Canada), which is also cinematic in scope, despite its confinement to the (now-also-wide) television screen.

Hats off to Ghomeshi for alerting me to this hidden artistic gem (and, over time, to many others).

It was the Salman Rushdie interview which finally put me over the top, however. Entirely unself-consciously (and opposite to my original image of him), Ghomeshi drew out and nurtured Rushdie's self-exposition on every topic you can imagine - from being the target of a Fatwa, to playing the role of an "arts superstar," to moving beyond the novel to take on parts in movies, a la Gore Vidal (as Rushdie himself pointed out, I believe).

As I have learned is typically the case during Ghomeshi's interviews, Rushdie came scintillatingly alive. I bristled with anticipation for the next turn of their conversation. This was something I wanted to be a part of. Ghomeshi and Rushdie were electric, and I was tuning in.

So, who is Jian Ghomeshi?

In short, he is a classic embodiment of the multiple paradoxes of Canada in his own background.

To begin, Mr. Ghomeshi is actually 40-something. He was born on June 9,1967. He's been around a bit longer than I had initially suspected.

This enlightened and literate pacifist is in fact an unassuming Iranian Muslim by origin. The Shah of Iran, deposed in 1979, was the ruler of the country at the time Ghomeshi came to Canada - meaning that the Iran he was raised in was very different than the Iran of today. I also note that the Indo-European Shi'a majority populace have always been more liberal than their rulers. And historically, Irananians have had a laudable record of tolerance of diversity, as is certainly exemplified in Mr. Ghomeshi's attitudes. He was raised for several years in Uxbridge, a suburb of London, England, and then moved with his family to Canada at age 8 to reside first in Don Mills, and then in Thornhill - where he was immersed in Canadian Jewish culture - of all things!

As Ghomeshi understates the matter, "I'm just a typical Canadian."

I was surprised to learn that Gomeshi was - from 1992-2000 - a member of Moxy Früvous, where he played drums, percussion (bongos) and tin whistle. Moxy Früvous were a "counter-cultural" musical group well-known to me through my friend Nichole Riese and through past attendance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

I for one wasn't expecting the next Gzowski (himself a survivor of print journalism and former youngest-ever managing editor of Maclean's Magazine) to be coming from such an entirely different cultural space.But is this not the way that change almost always occurs - when and how we least expect it?

By the way, Gzowski and Gomeshi have something else in common. Both are/were songwriters. Yes, you knew Gomeshi is a songwriter (presently with MapleMusic), but Gzowski wrote the landmark "One Single River" with Ian Tyson. This anthem to Canadian national unity was recorded both by Ian and Sylvia and by Bob Dylan and The Band.

I could say more, but most of the rest has been said elsewhere. Listen to Jian Ghomeshi at CBC Radio Q - for arts, culture and entertainment in Canada.

Try these links for more information about Jian Gomeshi:
20 September 2009: Mr. Ghomeshi came to heightened prominence following his interview with a petulant Billy Bob Thornton, who had apparently woken up on the wrong side of the bed prior to his early-morning meeting with Jian. The Star story (above) makes brief note of the encounter, in which Mr. Thornton likens Canadians to "mashed potatoes." The encounter, managed in an exemplary manner by Mr. Ghomeshi, has been commented on widely and often across Canada. Click here for the QTV flash video of the encounter. Then, you can decide for yourself.

My personal take? Mr. Thornton embarrassed his band-mates, sabotaging their work in order to give voice to his unwarranted narcissistic injury in a stand-off with a polite and capable host who at no point meant nor offered any offense to him. My previously high opinion of Mr. Thornton has been considerably diminished, primarily due to his disregard of the original purpose of the interview, which was to promote the work of a group of which he is (was?) only a single member. The interview ended up being about Billy Bob and his ill-informed views of Canadians, rather than about him and his band-mates.

That was supremely self-centred, Billy Bob, as well as petty, mean and pointless!

21 March 2011: As the years have passed, Ghomeshi links have proliferated. I can no longer comment on all of them, as I initially attempted in 2008.

However, this one ("Jian Ghomeshi: Minding his Peace and Qs) is exemplary. Where Jian lives. It's personal and interesting. And yes, I want the guy's house!

31 October 2014: Abusive people often don't know when they're behaving abusively, and it's usually easy to understand if you know something of the person's life story. I've been reflecting recently on the iconic 2009 interview of Billy Bob Thornton by Jian Ghomeshi. Mr. Thornton got up early in the morning and in a bad mood, and proceeded to launch into his distaste for Canadians and Canadian culture. It's pretty clear that he wasn't really aware of how inappropriate his behaviour was. Mr. Ghomeshi has been credited for handling the situation well, and he did. And now Mr. Ghomeshi's considerably more serious transgressions have come to light. It has quickly become clear that Mr. Ghomeshi was able to be extremely abusive to women without recognizing how far out of line and hurtful his behaviour was. I'm sure there are understandable reasons for both men's inability to recognize their capacity to behave abusively, not that these reasons excuse their conduct. But understanding is certainly the first step towards healing, if it is to occur. So far, Mr. Ghomeshi has not revealed even a flicker of understanding of what he has done, while Canadians have obviously grasped the problem in a hurry. Let's see if that has any impact. Until there are criminal charges, Mr. Ghomeshi is free to handle this situation as he chooses. I hope he makes good choices. Now that the stories are out, it's pretty obvious that he can be charged for assault, and all of the incidents so far reported are very disturbing. In particular, the stories make clear that Mr. Ghomeshi doesn't actually know what consent is, which is a pretty major gap in awareness. My take is that his opportunity to act is going to be very brief. I hope that he makes good decisions -- much better decisions than he has so far.


  1. Ask Jian Ghomeshi about his narration on the much criticized internet film "Zeitgeist the Movie" and see what kind of an honest answer you get. A few of his Jewish pals at the CBC might also be interested.

  2. Up here in Northern Ontario, we haven't been following this project ("Zeitgeist the Movie)." I haven't seen it, and don't plan to.

    As I understand it, this is a loosely assembled and shakily reasoned assemblage of conspiracy theories with little substantiation.

    More fundamentally, what does Ghomeshi have to do with this project? He is not involved as far as I can determine! What do you mean, "His narration on... the film?"

    However, for those wishing to know more, there is a Q&A, with this reference to the film's ideology at the film's official site:

    "What is the Zeitgeist Movement? The Zeitgeist Movement is a grass roots campaign to unify the world through a common ideology based on the fundamentals of life and nature. This movement ignores politics, religion and the like, and instead attempts to communicate how all humans are the same at the fundamental level and how it is time we start to work together on a global scale to end the seemingly perpetual conflict and suffering in our current world society."

    Here is a well-grounded criticism of the movie, from Wikipedia:

    Jane Chapman, a film producer and reader in media studies at the University of Lincoln, analyses Zeitgeist as “a fast- paced assemblage of agitprop,” an example of unethical film-making. She accuses Joseph of deceit through the use of unsourced and unreferenced assertions, and standard film-making propaganda techniques. While parts of the film are, she says, “comically” self-defeating, the nature of “twisted evidence” and the false attribution of Madrid bomb footage as being in London (which she calls a “lie”) amount to ethical abuse in sourcing. She finishes her analyses with the comment: "Thus legitimate questions about what happened on 9/11, and about corruption in religious and financial organizations, are all undermined by the film’s determined effort to maximize an emotional response at the expense of reasoned argument."

  3. I think you might want to edit some of your above spam comments.

  4. Hey! Can't anybody comment on Ghomeshi himself?