Meet Rex Murphy: Canada’s anti-ideological ideologue and heir to Socrates

From The Archives | Mitch Diamantopoulos

This story was originally published in the April 1998 edition of Planet S’ sister paper, Prairie Dog. We post it on the occasion of Rex Murphy’s death age 77 on May 9, 2024.

Slumped across my couch in a late-night cathode ray daze, I’ve often wondered about The Journal’s star opinion-jockey Rex Murphy: ‘where did this guy get that large and literate mouth?’

I imagined him as a child. He was the class clown. I could almost feel his teachers’ migraine headaches. I imagined him the youngest in a large family, struggling to make himself heard over the clamour of it all. I imagined him flunking out of the sports-scene, retreating to the library, and eventually rebelling against all the “QUIET” signs.

In less reflective moments, our scruffy prime-time poet just struck me as a hired mouth, railing on about a randomly selected opinion of the week just to pay his bills. It’s an uncharitable view, I suppose. I probably just never got over the resemblance to the Beachcombers’ wily curmudgeon Relic.

Whatever my preconceptions about the mouth-that-walks-like-a-man, to appropriate a phrase, I was wrong. The fact is that Rex Murphy is a man with a mission.

Reformation for the Media Age

Rex Murphy has come out-of-the-closet, in an industry dominated by what news producer and media critic Danny Schechter calls “trained seals with hairspray,” to lock horns with the forces of mindlessness and mediocrity. It doesn’t take long before he’s pounding the pulpit about the decline of Western civilization. “I spin around at the explosion of these dreadful afternoon talk shows, the spinning down of taste and of landmarks of human intellect and achievement, this great wash of vulgarity.”

For Murphy, the information age is a mixed blessing. The information society is his soapbox and his life work. The knowledge economy is his bread and butter. But, he says, the proliferation of messages across the multi-channel universe and the information highway has also dulled our mental faculties.

“We confuse access with process,” he says. “Information may be out there, but it must be digested for it to approach something like wisdom. An inheritance has to be acquired, not merely by pressing a button so that you get ‘x’ or ‘y’ from a machine.”

Call him an elitist anachronism yearning to restore high culture or call him an engaged intellectual fighting the good fight to protect our classical cultural inheritance. Either way, he personifies the existential contradiction of our times. We’re searching for understanding in an increasingly littered and overcrowded mental environment that bombards us with more and more information that seems to have less and less meaning. We’re searching for meaning in an increasingly soulless world dominated by trade agreements and entertainment conglomerates that speak less and less to our daily lives.

The battle, as Murphy sees it, is largely a battle to writhe free of the suffocating “television embrace of North America over the last 15 years.” Citing the Lewinski media circus as our most recent example, he says “we have reached levels of vulgarity that are not only accepted but are touted as a great achievement.”

It’s to defend ourselves against the rising tide of this junk culture that Murphy sounds the alarm. His lifeboat is the “radiating effect” of high culture. Fine literature, he feels, can set us free. Chairman Mao he is not, but he’s got his own little red books. He’d have us take refuge from the sea of schlocky current affairs melodramas on the treasure islands of 19th century novels, Beethoven, great poetry and even good journalism. “Other people,” says Murphy, “have done things more gracefully, more elegantly, less sleazily. Having those as a stock of examples in your mind serves to provide the proportion and balance that there are counter-examples of vast achievement.”

He’s quite a piece of work, this Rex Murphy. He’s like a cross between the blowhard sports-mouth Don Cherry on the one hand, and the unapologetically intellectual and hyper-literate Stephen Lewis on the other. Who else — other than a televangelist — would have the audacity, in this age, to rant at length about the use of the term “pissed off” on television, concerned that 11-year-olds might hear it?

Socratic Conservative

Murphy is considerably more conservative than the fun-loving young bucks back at the Mothercorp, the This Hour Has 22 Minutes entourage. They routinely make a lowbrow, in-your-face mockery of the rules of civility and decorum that Rex holds so dear. While every installment of 22 Minutes is a left-leaning and fearless confrontation with the agents of establishment conservatism and privilege, Murphy is very much a part of the nation’s establishment. Not only has Murphy worked as a consultant to both of the country’s traditional establishment parties; he’s even run for public office. He’s both a member of the political class and the media intelligentsia.

As the late British socialist intellectual Ralph Miliband once wrote, “the noise is considerable, but the battle is bogus.” I’m still waiting for the showdown, where 22 Minutes’ Mary Walsh corners Rex about his highbrow vernacular and Oxford tie.

While Murphy does subvert journalistic orthodoxy in his own way, I must admit I had a hard time swallowing the former political aide’s claim not to have “a fully worked out political philosophy.” The innocent pose struck me as a trifle modest, considering our conversation fell mere months after Murphy crossed quills with one of the country’s leading political philosophers, John Raulston Saul. Murphy penned a scathing dismissal of Saul’s latest book for the Globe and Mail.

“I despise ideology. Ideology is usually an excuse for not thinking things through on a reasonable basis,” said Murphy. Yet, in the next breath, he declared that he’d “always had a soft spot for the notion that ‘they govern best who govern least.’” That, of course, is a veritable article of faith among neo-con ideologues eager to privatize, deregulate, downsize, and ultimately subdue the peoples’ only democratic defense against vested interests. It’s generally the most vulnerable who pay the price of ‘getting the state off our backs,’ and it’s the most privileged who reap the rewards. For an anti-ideologue, Murphy’s motto sounded pretty ideological to me.

I was reminded of a CCF old-timer’s advice: people who have strong opinions but claim not be ‘ideological’ are like entrepreneurs who claim not to be in it for the money. Follow them at your peril.

As a politically shrewd intellectual, well-schooled in the art of persuasion, Rex Murphy knows that being an ideologue is the surest way to lose a debate, or an audience. “One thing I learned in (small town Newfoundland) is that acting the pontificator, showing up to tell people in a stern voice and know-all way what they should be thinking is no good anyway.” On his broadcasts, he says he prefers to “have a modest amount of fun.” He says an “element of play makes the other stuff easier to digest.” Rather than a sermon from the mount, Rex prefers a “handshake with the audience.”

But a neo-con Murphy is not. “I’m not sympathetic in the slightest with the magic mantra that the marketplace is the genius of our lives. It’s a mania. Anyone who thinks things take care of themselves because of the way stock markets rise and roll or worships the market principle as the governing principle (of a society) is just as fundamentalist as the people they despise on the other end of the spectrum.”

So what does Rex Murphy stand for? Is he a social liberal? a red tory? Does he still feel there’s a place for him in either of his parties of choice with the rise to dominance of the neo-cons? He deftly dodges the question of his own partisanship, as a smart politician would, and instead talks about … ideology: “I like to be left alone. I don’t like to be badgered too much, either by structures or bureaucracy. I am very fixed on the individual perspective on things. That much I know. I like the maximum room for individuals to do what they like and not be interfered with. I don’t like busybodyism. I don’t like government taking on a managerial relationship with people. I’m somewhere in the middle I suppose, with a high accent on autonomy, on keeping those big machines of the state as far as possible from daily life.”

The shoe dropped for me when our chat veered into the realm of that other menace to individual liberty, big business. Where he had been relatively hard on the heavy hand of the state he suddenly softened on, of all people, the ideologue’s ideologue, press baron Conrad Black. I tried not to gasp, but I think he picked up my shock.

“I’d like to see some trimming of these people (Bill Gates, Conrad Black). A vast overinfluence in any society is a bad thing, but they also set up a polarity.”

According to Murphy, “this polarity creates the best creative energy, the best of clever responses and it really charges the adrenalin. A society that has no creative tension is a society that flattens itself out.”

Since when, I wondered, is a monopoly — which extinguishes diversity by definition and is what most of Black’s dailies enjoy nation-wide, a way of setting up a polarity? While Rex is in favour of getting the government off our backs, he apparently wants to give Black a ‘leg-up’ so he can ride piggyback that much more easily.

Murphy continued, but I didn’t hear what he said. I was stunned, or at least stuck. My mind wandered briefly. I wished we had more time to mix it up, preferably over a pitcher of draft. I’d put it to him straight: ‘If you dislike bureaucracy, being badgered and bossed around so much, and you despise ideology so much, then how is that you can make such an easy peace with all five of this province’s dailies, all monopolies, being in the hands of one ideologically obsessed publisher?’ ‘Is this where your anti-ideology ideology leads? Into the arms of Conrad Black?’

Then I’d call him a codger or something likely to inflame my Newfoundland elder and take a swig of beer. Hah!

Striking A Chord

Murphy speaks and people listen not just because he’s entertaining or insightful, though he is undoubtedly both. They turn to Rex Murphy out of nostalgia for the coffee row culture and kitchen table politics of a bygone era when citizenship mattered. When I asked him what he would do if he woke up prime minister tomorrow, he explained not how he would wield power but how he would engage the citizenry, as if it were merely a greatly enlarged audience for a special edition of The Journal.

“I’d try to suggest to the country at large that it has things that are shared, are common, are distinct to this place, to our temper, to our spirit; I’d suggest they are of some value and that it is special.”

“I do think that we are rather careless and terribly casual about the things we have in common, about the things that bind us and lace us together and that this casualness has a tendency to set us in peril.”

In a period of rapid and not altogether welcome change, Murphy speaks to a split in our national psyche. It’s a split between our ideal citizens’ selves, whose views should matter, and the reality of an increasingly desiccated culture. In the modern world, where we live, we are segmented as consumer groups in the market and atomized into clients of the state in the community. In both realms, the choices are pre-packaged. The truth is our views don’t matter, world-historically speaking.

This is the dilemma: we all want to be part of a larger culture and community, but in a media age that reduces citizens to spectators, it’s hard to feel like we’re really part of the conversation. We suffer through endless hours of professional experts, objective journalists, and official sources who all reinforce the sense that we’re not really qualified to take our own views seriously. Even having an opinion today seems somehow passé.

For a flickering moment, Rex reaches into the comfort of our living rooms and briefly reels us into the conversation again, guts-first. It’s like being a citizen, whose opinion matters.

Whatever the source of Rex Murphy’s magnetism, he simply means something to Canadians. Talk-radio reactionary Rush Limbaugh means that an angry Yank populism is alive and out to get left-liberals. Shock-jock Howard Stern means that a stifled and controlled population longs for a hit of rebellion in conditions that otherwise prevent it. To say that Murphy is unlike some of these cross-border contemporaries underscores the point that Murphy is the quintessentially Canadian talk-show host. His warmth, tolerance and democratic deference to his radio listeners personifies the nation’s reverence for civility. In contrast to Limbaugh or Stern, the CBC’s Cross Country Check-Up convener reassures us that we are still a culturally and intellectually sophisticated people after all. Love him or loathe him, Rex Murphy is a one-man vanguard campaigning for a more reflective and engaged public discourse. In these troubling times that cry out for it so sorely you have to admit Murphy is providing an essential public service. When it comes to democracy, dialogues are more important than ideologues.

If ancient Greek philosophers had radio shows, Rex Murphy would be the heir to that bad boy of the Athenian polis, Socrates. Socrates, of course, was a perpetual nuisance; he constantly disturbed Athens’ fledgling democracy, challenged conventional wisdom, and provoked perpetual debate. In his own defense, he declared that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’

Athenians seldom agreed with the ornery philosopher. And that was the point.