Slumming It at the Rodeo

By Gordon Laird

It is a freak of history that, at roughly the same time in the 1930s, Saskatchewan hosted the birth of Canadian socialism while Alberta set out on a course that would lead it to be forever identified as Canada’s redneck country.

It was a time of crisis, and crisis, as Gordon Laird observes in this lively new book, legitimates authority. In order to understand the current right-wing revolution – the tribe of Manning, Klein, and Harris – it helps to know something about these cultural roots.

This said, Slumming It at the Rodeo is not really a work of social history. Laird’s main focus is on current events, and the “cultural convergence of the entertainment industry and politics.” The argument is suggestively McLuhanesque, which means a couple of things. On the one hand, some of the analogies are stretched too far and snappy lines sometimes take precedence over reasoned opinion. On the positive side, however, the argument is bold, the presentation original, and the writing provocative and fun.

There is, for example, nothing new (especially coming from the left) in the observation that democracy has been debased to the point where citizens are merely consumers of a political product. But what is interesting here is the way this point expands into a discussion of Canada’s major political parties as fast-food franchises, with candidate-product identification (“Ralph’s Team”), limited choice from a controlled menu, managerial philosophy, and heavy reliance on gimmick advertising.

The title of the book comes from Laird’s idea that the trajectory of Canadian politics imitates the form of the Western. Canada’s political right has adopted the myth of the frontier in order to disguise an agenda of corporate conformity – Bay Street suits pretending to be rugged cowboys. The New Right is thus a phenomenon comparable to New Country music, with its “faux-rootsy, top-down commercialism.” Opinion polls take the place of market research, and a political machine sells itself as “Politics for People Who Don’t Like Politics.” Even line-dancing is given a symbolic weight, becoming a debased form of country dance that is really just “boot-stompin’ conformity.”

Laird is very good at this breezy style of commentary and his book is one of the most entertaining and refreshing political analyses in a long time. We should expect more good things to come from such a talented young writer.

Review first published September 19, 1998.


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