Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Here's a taste of what I'm working on now. Big thanks to the editor at grubstreet.

Randal Marlin: he’s an author, a philosopher, a teacher to thousands. An expert in the shady ins and outs of propaganda, he’s been called “Ottawa’s Orwell”. Marlin learned his first lessons about the nature of power—and its abuses-- from the most influential of teachers... his childhood peers. Of course. Didn’t we all?

Marlin’s colourful childhood saw him bounce from DC, to QC, to the UK. After some powerful Quebecois culture shock and a generous helping of what would be labelled “bullying” today, he graduated to yet more culture shock (and more bullying) in the class-centric world of British boarding schools. Orwellian, indeed! He overwhelmingly experienced how power over others can be a slippery slope for anyone, himself included.

As a young man Marlin experimented with exercising his personal power: on the student newspaper at Princeton, where he butted heads with the university administration; with his professors as he tested their tolerance for his late-night poker matches (and subsequent class absences); and as a new homeowner fighting to keep his neighbourhood a welcoming place for families to grow and play.

Now 70, Marlin shares the wisdom of someone who has pushed himself to learn and develop throughout all of his life. He’s not afraid to say when he’s goofed up—he owns up to his share of pain inflicted and opportunities missed. I wouldn’t like him otherwise. In this interview, he allows peeks into his personal make-up along with the basic principles behind his most recent book, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion.

Alternately quoting cartoons and Plato, Marlin shows how the most pernicious falsehood is one that brims with truths told in a deceiving manner. His main thrust, however, is not purely philosophical, or concerned with purely academic matters of “truth” and “falsehood”. Instead, it is the very everyday ways that the media (and other interested parties) stir-fry facts like tofu and present them on a platter to look like, well, whatever they want them to look like--in the hopes that the public will eat them right up and ask for seconds.

Marlin is a big proponent of each person having a unique contribution to make to the world. Clearly, part of his own gift is to discern, to dissemble, to say, “Hey! That’s tofu under there! Didn’t we order steak in the last election?” (No offense to tofu. We love us some delicious stir-fried tofu—we just want to know what it is we’re putting in our mouths!)

From the rugby field to the office of the US “president”, Marlin notes well the ways in which people relate to one another with genuine intention, or complete lack thereof. His faith in humanity is endearing. His work is elucidating. His personal example is powerful.

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