Mixed Media Mixed Messages
Mixed Media Mixed Messages
New Star Books, Vancouver, 206 pages, Paper, $13.95
Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker
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
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
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.
This article originally appeared in Sources,
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