Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Rick Mercer.

This always happens around Christmas: my planned reading list is (pleasantly) interrupted by newly unwrapped reading material. This year’s interruption (courtesy of my mother) was Rick Mercer’s Rick Mercer Report: The (Paperback) Book (Toronto: Anchor, 2008).

Rick Mercer is presently best known (as the title suggests) for his news satire program the Rick Mercer Report [i]: for my American readers, think John Stewart in prime-time. Mercer also travels a lot more, every week visiting two different Canadian work environments, both political and non, for interviews (in an opening reflection on the related problems of communication and landmass in Canada, Mercer remarks that “[His] luggage has remained packed for over a decade,” xi).

Mercer’s book is mostly a compilation of Mercer’s weekly “rants” on current news items from his show and articles on his blog. Not only are these miniature essays entertaining on their own, but they’ve been arranged into a revealing chronology of Canadian political themes over the last five years. The book opens with essays considering how the Canadian democratic system operates, and the relationship between former PM Paul Martin and newly-appointed opposition leader Stephen Harper, eventually moving on to consider the fall of the Liberal government, the appointment of Dion (at the Liberal convention of 2006), and the three minority governments of the past five years. Mercer pauses along the way to consider topics like political lying and bullying, deficit spending, and the faltering relationship between the government and science.

The book’s arrangement by themes emphasises running political sub-themes that, from week to week, might appear as isolated phenomena. Including, for example, Jason Kenney’s unscrupulous registering of Don Boudria’s domain name, Harper’s similar purchasing of Dianne Haskett’s name, and the infamous “Kyoto blog” [ii], a nasty trend of using the internet as an offensive (both “tactically” and “disgustingly”) means of manipulating both party members and rivals seems to be growing in Canadian politics. It’s the little things that determine a nation’s character, no?

This book does concern the nation as a whole: despite Mercer’s fairly obvious antipathy towards the Conservative Party, he devotes equal critical attention towards the other political parties. Indeed, Mercer’s description of “a good show” is “when I get five emails from Tories accusing me of being a Liberal shill, and five emails from Liberals accusing me of being a Tory” (211).

Mercer’s writing should not be mistaken as mere sophistry for the sake of ratings, however (though he does admit he keeps the ratings in mind); he offers consistent defenses of gay rights, freedom of speech and press, federal support for peacekeeping, and equal treatment of provinces. When one (re)considers the number of changes in federal parliament in the last five years (and yet more changes in party structure and leadership), perhaps it is more rational to define one’s political values by independent issues rather than any one political party. Using this strategy, Mercer is able to positively critique the actions party leaders in “Doing Something Right for a Change.”

I think Mercer’s book is (like his show) to be prized most for the way it shows Canadian politics and politicians (as well as a few writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs) so lively and full of character. I’ve often thought, in history class, and while reading the Dictionary of Canadian Biography two summers ago, that Canadian political history could be mostly characterised by a tenacious cycle of “policy, squabbling, namecalling, policy”. Mercer’s book does much to confirm this notion. It simultaneously demonstrates, however, that while policy can sometimes be a matter of pedantry, it also seriously defines a nation’s values. More, tenacity itself may be a fitting description of national character: one that — for good or for ill — is responsible for Canada’s survival.

End Notes:

[i] Rick Mercer Report. Tuesdays at 8.00 PM, CBC. Though Mercer has done many other fine programs. Like Made in Canada, a program about a Canadian film production company with the humour of The Office and the hand-held camera style of Arrested Development (though it was around four years before the former, and six years before the latter). With its Canadian content and humour, and meta-commentary, however, I would place it above The Office in entertainment value. Oh, CBC, why do you let good shows fade from the airwaves?

[ii] Kyoto blog. Mercer describes this as “[an] official Conservative party blog [in which] Kyoto the dog likes to quote his ‘master’ Stéphane Dion, and of course Dion speaks in broken English.” (89)

30 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines

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