Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Across the border

When people ask me who my favorite writer is, one of the first names that comes up is Ken Dryden. Yes, that Ken Dryden, the former Montreal Canadiens goalie. And current Member of Parliament in Canada, a lawyer who went to Cornell.

Dryden has written five books over the years. He became famous in hockey circles for "The Game," a look back at his time with the Canadiens that instantly became one of the best hockey books ever written. He then worked on a television documentary that was also the basis for a book, in both cases called "Home Game." Not only was the TV show good, but the book was great reading. I've never read a better explanation of the simple joy of playing a team sport than the one Dryden presented there.

Dryden moved on to "The Moved and the Shaken," which profiled an average unknown person in part because he was curious about what a typical person's life was like. It worked far better than you might think. Then he spent a year in an Ontario high school for "In School." It was an education just to read it.

What's great about Dryden's work is that it combines a great amount of thought and patience with a reader-friendly style. You can see the smarts turning in the background as you read, but the prose isn't intimidating.

Dryden hasn't written a book in several years -- he was busy running the Toronto Maple Leafs and running for political office. Now he's out with "Becoming Canada," designed to start a big conversation about the direction of the country. You could have guessed that I bought it and read it quickly.

This latest book probably isn't for most Americans. More than half of it is something of a running commentary on the Canadian political debate over the last decade or so. It's tough for someone on the other side of the border to pick up on some of the references. I will say this much -- Dryden sure isn't impressed with Prime Minster Stephen Harper.

But there is much here that might interest those in the U.S. of A, especially in the first two chapters. Dryden is impressed by Barack Obama, and makes a great point about America's foreign policy in the 2000's. Dryden writes, more or less, that George W. Bush had a foreign policy approach that Teddy Roosevelt would have loved, a "we're America and we'll do what we damn well please" direction. The problem is that this is not 1904 any more, and the world has changed.

Obama came along and tried to have America fit in with the rest of the world instead of extending power over it. Better to engage the enemy, the theory went, then isolate it. For that, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize. Dryden points out that much of America was surprised and confused by this selection, but that rest of the world got it immediately.

Dryden also likes the way Obama has talked about big themes, such as health care, climate change, etc. Such subjects are a hard sell in this political climate in the U.S., and maybe Obama hasn't been a great salesman/politician, but Dryden thinks he's on to something. The author is having similar problems in getting people in Canada to think about something other than how to cut taxes. It's very interesting to read an outside (of the U.S) viewpoint.

In his concluding chapter, Dryden writes about some of the issues that are on Canada's national agenda. An overriding issue is multi-culturalism, as all sort of ethnic backgrounds have become part of the Canadian landscape. It's not just French and English any more, although the arguments between those two sides over the years seem to have taught Canadians to try to get along when possible.

In the midst of that discussion, Dryden mentions the important of education in Canada ... and how that affects all of public policy. He's a believer that everyone should have the same chance to get ahead. That might affect more areas than you might think. It starts with good prenatal care, so that health issues don't cause a child to be giving up head starts to everyone else on day one. It goes from there to good schooling, of course, and access to colleges, but also to day care. But it also includes helping new immigrants who need help learning English in order to use their skills in a new country. It includes giving tax breaks to companies who sink resources into research and development, and to Internet access for all.

It sure sounds like Dryden arguing that a smarter country is a better country. He may be on to something here.

I once wrote that Dryden reminded me a lot of Bill Bradley, another pro athlete turned politician who would have been a better office-holder than he was a candidate. I saw nothing in "Becoming Canada" to change my mind.

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