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Mixed Media, Mixed Messages

Persky, Stan
Publisher:  New Star Books, Vancouver, Canada
Year Published:  1991  
Pages:  206pp   Price:  $13.95pb  

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West coast journalist/author/teacher Stan Persky was like a ship leaving port without a destination when the Vancouver Sun hired him in May 1990 to write a media column for the Sun's new weekend supplement.

His navigating instructions were: "Write a media diary." The confirmed digressionist shoved off. Mixed Media Mixed Messages turned out to be his destination, comprising 50 of his media columns, bridged by illuminating musings and behind-the-scenes details. He steered from abortion to Adam Zimmerman, stopping in to consider the likes of Ted Byfield, censorship, Sun editor-in-chief Nick Hills, The Nature of Things, women's magazines and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Persky changed my mind about Ludwig.

Persky first cleared the decks by consigning the fiction of "objectivity" to its deserved place in the trash bin of non-existence. This enabled him to proceed with more than usual candour. Persky muses on his homosexuality as thoughtfully as he does censorship. Such seeming "impertinences" can be at least as significant as the Major Issues and conventional wisdom so often confidently put foreward by the agenda-setting media and so widely accepted even by most of us working within the media. Persky's gayness, for instance, could hardly be separated from his nonconformist ways of seeing and writing.

For me, reading Mixed Media Mixed Messages was like enjoying a stimulating conversation (I kept scrawling "Yes!" in the margins) with a thoughtful and whole person, one who shares most of my interests and introduced me to some of his own.

Persky is intransigently opposed to intransigence. His pluralism is in his bone marrow. And his grace with the language is more developed than most of us manage.

In the first of two columns on the state of the language, Persky plays with and respects his subjects. "One man's lunatic fringe is another man's centre of the universe," he writes. Later, of his editor-in-chief's demand for a substitute column "by Thursday," Persky declares: "Hills made columns sound like somehing you picked up at McDonald's."

"Videality," Persky comments in a column entitled The Nintendo War, is "a confused melange of visuals and inchoate emotion" which "deprive us of thought."

Persky's deepest sounding into the subject of language is in his review of a new biography of Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk. I confess I had thought of Wittgenstein as an an obscuranist. Persky's review of Monk's book showed me the enigmatic Austrian was wrestling with the meaning of meaning. Persky explaining Wittgenstein: "Rather than seeking the hidden essence of language, we ought to examine the use of expressions in the vast collection of practices that make up the busines of using a language."

There are no thoughts, and therefore no truths, independent of language, no neutral ground anywhere for anyone about anything. All "truth," all "reality," is our truth, our reality. Everything is subjective and relative. In the years between my impatient rejection of Wittgenstein and my reading of Persky's review, I had learned these things for myself. Now I could appreciate the philosopher described 25 years after his death by fellow philosopher Anthony Kenny as "the most significant thinker of the 20th century."

The fact that so few people seem able or willing to grasp that there's no such thing as objective anything - nor to see the profoundly anti-authoritarian personal-responsibility implications of this grasp - justifies Persky's comment that Wittgenstein's philosophy "leaned over the precipce and dared to glimpse the abyss."

Perhaps Persky's greatest strength is his ability to get to the heart of the issue. Persky asks of Janet Malcolm's essay The Journalist and the Murderer: "Does a journalist have the moral right to deceive or lie to an interview subject for the sake of getting a story?"

It's a difficult judgement call that will vary according to particular circumstances, Persky concludes. More importantly, on the way to reaching his honest ambiguity, he reveals Malcolm's "kind of Kantian inflexibility" on the subject, which leads to an absolutist "no".

Persky's truthfulness extends, as in the Malcolm example, to saying he would not always be truthful. But I thought his truthfulness to himself may have failed him when he suppressed - the word is unflinchingly his own - a report of an interview he had with "the key gay figure" in the United Church of Canada's front-paged debate over the ordination of homosexuals.

Persky possessed a three-hour tape of the interview. After some unusually convoluted wrestling with some unconvincing questions Persky says he "decided to let the story go."

That he provides the substance with which we can decide he may have been fooling himself adds a paradoxical icing to a paradoxical cake, a further tribute to his vulnerable search for truths - and to his decency.

Persky writes of hearing environmentalist David Suzuki speak "in the open, at night, with two or three thousand people scattered across a darkened field" near the Stein Valley. Suzuki was "unmediated" except by a microphone and "was more passionate, direct and urgent than the man I'd occasionally seen on TV." Persky had the sense he was in the presence of "someone speaking his mind. I mean - and how rare this is - speaking directly from his mind; someone who was in touch with his thoughts in a way not given to most of us on most days. I was hearing a voice that had grown wise, and that knew something particular and important."

The description might apply to Persky. Mixed Media Mixed Messages left me with added respect for a wise, imperfect, humane person possessed of remarkable senses of humour, responsibility and proportion.

[Review by Barrie Zwicker]

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