In Praise of Our Eminent Elderly Columnists

June 28, 2020 Updated: June 28, 2020


Growing older has compensations. Memories are sweeter in the face of modern realities. Addictive technologies, ballooning debts, and delusional causes feed my relief that I was young when I was.

All we had to worry about was nuclear annihilation and the design of the Canadian flag. Heck, the Maple Leafs even won the Stanley Cup. And common sense seemed a lot more common back then.

For writers especially, an advantage of aging is perspective. We know what things were like 50 or 60 years ago because we were there, living the context of the times. Context—nuances, layers of reality, values, circumstances—is basic to understanding history. It’s why people like Margaret MacMillan and Conrad Black are exceptional historians: like miners, they extract context and build it into their accounts.

MacMillan, a great-granddaughter of British prime minister David Lloyd George, is one of Canada’s foremost academics. Her portrayal of Paris 1919 in her book of that title puts you there: “While the flags of victory fluttered from the lampposts and windows, limbless men and demobilized soldiers in worn army uniforms begged for change on street corners; almost every other woman wore mourning. The left-wing press called for revolution, the right-wing for repression. Strikes and protests came one after the other. The streets that winter and spring were filled with demonstrations.” (Sound familiar?)

Consider a passage by Black in his “Rise to Greatness, The History of Canada” recounting the death of our first prime minister in 1891: “John Alexander Macdonald had been brilliant and unerring at critical moments: Confederation, completing the railway, avoiding commercial union with the United States, preserving relations between the founding races. He had dominated the public life of his country for nearly two whole generations, since the Great Ministry of Baldwin and LaFontaine. Even in the era of Lincoln, Bismark, Disraeli, and Gladstone, he was a great statesman.”

In three sentences, Black sketches a great Canadian’s accomplishments and his place in history. He dug up the ore, panned out the grit, and gave us the gold. Is a younger writer likely to do so?

Black, who is also one of the finest conservative columnists around (and a successor to William F. Buckley Jr., who died in 2008), is now in his mid-70s. So is MacMillan (she was pushing 60 when she wrote “Paris 1919”). In the 1950s, when Canada flowered and prospered in the post-war world, many of its leaders such as Louis St. Laurent and George Drew, and world leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, were in their 60s and 70s.

Today our best columnists on matters political and economic are elderly. Diane Francis and Barbara Kay are in their 70s. Christie Blatchford was 68 when she died on Feb. 12. Rex Murphy and Terence Corcoran are also in their 70s. (I know none of them personally.)

Compassion was one of Blatchford’s strong points; for Kay it still is. At a time when male bashing was (and is) part of the zeitgeist, Blatchford defended the male sex, a rare voice in defence of those who built our homes and highways by the sweat of their brows, who defended us from fascism and communism with cunning, blood, and sacrifice, and who continue to dominate in public service.

Of course men make mistakes. We’re all flawed, men and women both, which many today in their righteousness tend to forget or don’t seem to know. To trumpet human error at every turn, as some media love to do, isn’t news, it’s nonsense—and it’s counterproductive.

Murphy, in this time of pandemic, has distinguished himself as a defender of Canada’s parliamentary democracy, its farmers and oilmen and miners, and of the values that made us prosper. Black rejects nonsense wherever he sees it, a gift of courage few possess. Francis and Corcoran are forthright defenders of capitalism and good governance.

Even when they could retire and enjoy a life of ease, they toil. Driven by a need to defend their values and help us navigate these difficult times, when “facts” are often fake and “truth” is often buried by people with agendas, they continue to write. They feel they know the truth and have the courage to share it. Often they are right.

In contrast, columnists in their 20s and 30s tend to write muddy and pointless tracts on matters of popular culture, rarely risking forays into issues economic and political, the core of what really counts.

Besides a sense of duty, these elderly icons possess a shield that younger writers, with families to feed and mortgages to pay, usually lack (which may explain the mud). That shield is financial independence, which frees them from the need to conform, to self-censor. At a time when political correctness is strangling free speech, ending careers, and distorting or hiding the truth, such independence is vitally important.

Nevil Shute wrote about this in his novels and autobiography. Great Britain, he noted, lost a valuable class of people when the monied gentry, with their financial independence, ceased to dominate key civil service positions. When they did, they kept things honest and right by speaking up when necessary, resigning on principle if need be, fearing not the loss of a job, for they had means. British society, Shute asserted, benefited greatly. But those dependent on the paycheque or fearful of risking the pension, like government employees in our civil service-heavy Canada, tend to go with the flow, even if that flow is nonsense or downright harmful.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who defend the values that built Canada. Honesty, personal responsibility, private ownership, private enterprise, faith, and family nurtured the Canada we have today, which is threatened by their decline and the rise of relativism, collectivism, radical feminism, uncontrolled spending, and political correctness.

Truth, freedom, and good sense are waning. What happens when, like Blatchford (who is greatly missed), others in that honoured pantheon depart? Those values lose defenders unless others step up to continue the fight. That is easier said than done, however.

So learn from them now, value them now, thank them now, while we’re still blessed to have them.

Joni Mitchell was right: you never really appreciate something, or somebody, until it is gone.

Brad Bird is a youngish journalist and author who remembers the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.