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Jan-26-2010 00:37printcomments

Why I Write for

I’ve made my share of trouble. This is why I never stayed with the so-called mainstream media. They didn’t want trouble.

Daniel Johnson during the early years of his career
Daniel Johnson during the early years of his career

(CALGARY, Alberta) - It’s coming up a year since I first started writing for Salem-News. I’d like to explain, to the open-minded and receptive readers of goodwill, what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

I write, basically, because I have no choice. As an intellectual (not something I chose to be, but I’m not complaining). I read and write just like you breathe. If I don’t have something to read or have no outlet to write, I get irritable and uncomfortable, just like quitting smoking, which I have done many times in my life until it finally stuck in 2001.

Within that world I write because, to me, it’s fun. But for those of you who are wondering, I’ll tell you a little bit about what intellectuals do and how I fit the mould.

Intellectuals are society's metathinkers—to quote a cliché, they think “outside the box” which is often a source of misinterpretation to those at the hearing or reading end. The intellectual’s role, not always welcome or appreciated, is to see the world in a way different from the accepted norm. Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann define an intellectual "as an expert whose expertise is not wanted by the society at large." I’ve run into this even on a much smaller scale, many times.

This is not a new societal attitude. In Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Caesar says:

  • Let me have men about me that are fat;
  • Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o'nights:
  • Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
  • He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

We live in a corporate-controlled world and, from a corporate viewpoint, business journalist Ferdinand Lundberg writes: "Troublemakers, so much sand in the gears, are especially unwanted and the place to spot them is at the personnel office, where the latest in psychological testing is put to use. Potential nonbelievers, doubters, scoffers, misfits and persons with 'negative attitudes' generally must be weeded out lest they contaminate a basically sound workforce and impede the flow of profits."

In the business world, that was me in spades. I used to do my job, just to gain a paycheque (like most people), but I was never a believer in the so-called corporate purpose, although I could mouth (and still can) the platitudes as well as anyone.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, originally born in Canada and who became a member of JFK’s inner circle, noted that "intellectuals have usually thought themselves disliked because others were jealous of their brains. More often it's because they make trouble."

And, yes, I’ve made my share of trouble. This is why I never stayed with the so-called mainstream media. They didn’t want trouble. They wanted profits. Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), regularly attacked by conservatives as being left-wing, was fundamentally the same because the producers I worked for were watching out for their careers first.

Michael Ignatieff, a native Canadian, taught history at Harvard for many years before returning to Canada to head up the Liberal Party of Canada and run for Prime Minister. He could well be Canada’s Prime Minister at any time.

In a CBC program in 2000 he took a broader view:

An intellectual is not an academic. An intellectual is not a specialist. And an intellectual is not a journalist. We've got plenty of academics, plenty of specialists, plenty of journalists. What we don't have enough of are people who ask questions on principle, fundamental principles about political and moral issues, and who put together general propositions from a host of different sources. An intellectual is a generalist, an intellectual is someone who is not an expert in a particular field but who takes propositions that are lying around the tables of many different places; journalism, academics, specialisms of various kinds of science and puts together general frameworks, general theories, general accounts, whose ultimate audience is the man in the street and whose ultimate purpose is to mold and shape the conversation of a country or a nation or a people. Intellectuals do that. It’s a frankly elitist function in the sense that it presumes that an intellectual does know more than other people. And we become, I think, much too apologetic about that elitism.

Some people do know more than other people. Some people have earned the right to speak. Some people have earned the right to know things. They paid for it in hard labour. It's not a social privilege. It's not a financial privilege. It's just the privilege of having read all the books you see around [me]. And it's not something to be proud of. You put in the years. That's an intellectual's legitimacy. He's put in the years and also the test of legitimacy is intellectual honesty. Not being in hock to some ideology, not being in hock to some institution. Being independent. Being able to stand up and say what the hell you please”.

This latter privilege I’m afforded by the editor, Tim King, because he trusts both my motives and experience. He still has the power to stop something he doesn’t approve of, but that hasn’t happened yet and I don’t expect it to.

This reminds me of a story that Galbraith told. He started his writing career with Henry Luce at Fortune magazine. Luce, the founder of the Time-Life empire, edited everything with a very conservative pencil. Galbraith said that sometimes, if he tried to put in a positive reference to, say, the AFL-CIO he would couch it in such careful terms that it would get by Luce. He says that what he didn’t realize at the time was that if it got by Luce, it would get by the reader as well.

There is also a psychological dimension to why I write. My son, Ben, was diagnosed in elementary school with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Almost his whole education was at a school for children with so-called learning disabilities. No one doubted, or doubts, that he’s very bright. He just had problems learning to read and write, which you and I take for granted.

I was the exact opposite. I was reading even before I started school. So, it was a real surprise to me about a decade ago to learn that I, too, have ADD. It was just manifested much differently in my life.

As a result I read a book by a Vancouver doctor named Gabor Maté. He, too, learned as an adult that he had ADD. He researched it and in more of a personal memoir, he wrote Scattered Minds. I learned much from the book (many of his experiences echoed mine) but one thing stands out in this context. ADD people are psychologically pre-disposed to want to help others. As Maté puts it: "This feeling of duty toward the whole world is not limited to ADD but is typical of it. No one with ADD is without it."

When Ben was about seven, we lived in a townhouse complex. In that complex was a mangy tomcat that everyone called Johnny Cat. He lived under porches and on scraps people put out, but no one could get near him. One day a few of the neighbors were having coffee at our place and the subject of Johnny Cat came up. Someone suggested he be caught and taken to the SPCA to be “put out of his misery”. I’ll never forget little Ben’s indignation as he stood up to all the adults and said in a loud voice: “You can’t do that! Johnny Cat has a right to try to live!” We moved away while Johnny Cat was still on the loose, so I don’t know whatever happened to him.

That’s why I’m a so-called left winger or socialist. I tend to come out on the side of people as opposed to the power structures—particularly the business world.

Now, to my actual writing. What I write I intend to be a potential dialog with my readers. My intention is to educate, inform and provoke my readers into seeing old things in new ways. But no one can accuse me of being malicious or writing to attack my readers. I’ll attack conservatives because I believe that they are fundamentally the real enemies of society.

Which brings me to how I see the dialog progressing. I write, you read. I have been criticized by some readers because I am also the moderator of my own articles. What they don’t understand is that my articles and the comments that go with them, are not a free-speech zone.

I will not tolerate name-calling and disrespect. You can disagree with me, but do so in a civil way. I have goodwill towards you and I expect the same in return. Just like someone phoning you and starting to verbally abuse you. Your first reaction is to just hang up.

I treat negative comments the same way and just delete them. But, if you disagree and show goodwill, then I’m open to having my ideas challenged. I’m open to learning new things. Otherwise, if you don’t like what I write, move on. You’ll get nothing more from me.

Last, but not least, here is the worldview from which I operate.

Most people live unknowingly in a psychological straitjacket. American philosopher Allan Bloom, in his book The Closing of the American Mind wrote:

The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.”

A good example of this is religion. Until the 16th century there was no such thing as an atheist. Heretics, yes, but the idea of an atheist was outside the ability of anyone to even think of. So it is today with most Americans unable to see their country as part of a global reality. To them, America is all.

The most dangerous aspect of this mental straitjacket says American philosopher Lewis Mumford in his book The Pentagon of Power: The myth of the machine: “If the history of the human race teaches any plain lessons, this is one of them: Man cannot be trusted with absolutes.” (his emphasis)

This is the pathology of American culture described in two quotes. First, there are the people (in my most recent article the pro-gun, Second Amendment people) who are in a mental box and don't know, and are unable to understand, that there are other, legitimate, points of view. What keeps them in this mental straitjacket is their belief in absolutes, of which there are none.

If you believe there are absolutes and you can prove it, you'll be more famous than Albert Einstein who proved there aren't. Believing in absolutes is natural, just as it is natural to believe in a flat earth. But if you can get your mind around that counter-intuitive idea, then everything looks different and whole new worlds open up to you.


Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place

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Amanda January 28, 2010 1:44 am (Pacific time)

I am a naturalized American, have lived in this country for the past 58 years. I read the headlines of Salem-News daily, sometimes an entire article. I am sorry, Daniel, I have missed your writing, until today's article caught my eye. I am impressed with people, who are capable of "thinking outside the box". Even though I would not even assume to be an intellectual in the broad sense of the word, I do consider myself an "intellectual" in my own small circle of the world. I am a free thinker, and I definitely do not fit the ordinary mold of most Americans, because my desire to gather as much information as possible daily, makes my own world wothwhile living, and able to think "ouside the box". The average European has a better understanding of world affairs. They do not confine themselves to their own borders, or assume to be superior, as American's tend to do. Keep writing Daniel, we all can learn from your way thinking, and broaden the horizon.

Cassie January 27, 2010 1:30 pm (Pacific time)

Is the writer of this confession familiar with the Diagnostic Survey Manual? If so, have you any formal credentials using this manual? If not, may I suggest you find someone who is, and have a go...

Not self-diagnosed if that's what you're suggesting.

JB January 26, 2010 7:14 pm (Pacific time)

OTTAWA — An incident in which the federal fisheries minister was hit with a pie by a seal hunt protester should be seen as a terrorist act, says a Liberal MP. Gerry Byrne made the comment to Newfoundland radio station VOCM after Gail Shea was hit in the face Monday by an American animal-rights activist, unhappy with Canada's seal hunt. What up with this Dan?

New York City resident Emily McCoy, 37, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is charged with assault. Byrne told VOCM the government should investigate the incident based on the definition of a terrorist act under the law in Canada. McCoy was arrested after the incident in Burlington, Ont. Shea was not injured, and said she has not changed her support for the hunt. In a statement following the incident, PETA executive vice-president Tracy Reiman said: "A little tofu pie on her face is hardly comparable to the blood on Ms. Shea's hands."

What, I'm supposed to come out against the American? McCoy is living her principles. The world needs more Americans like that.

Josh A. January 26, 2010 6:14 pm (Pacific time)

Yes, that left side of DJ's photo is definitely winning the mustache race(just kidding)! Oh, man... What he writes is nothing compared to the fascist rambling I found on statesman journal today... 'Opinion "if you vote democrat your a socialist", it went on to say that if you vote independent you are "throwing your vote away".' Well that leaves one option. Republican. One possible candidate for me to vote for? isn't that called Fascism-in-disguise? Even if I were a Republican, as a United States Citizen I am outraged that there is only 'one choice'. Ridiculous!

Vic January 26, 2010 7:11 am (Pacific time)

Is it an "intellectual" trademark to have one side of your mustache twice as large as the left side? I think anyone who identifies themselves as an intellectual or a christian should be held suspect of actually being neither. Is egomania an intellectual trait? Modesty evidently isnt. It may get lonely up on that pedestal...

Here's something I learned from Stephen King's story "The Body" (made into the movie Stand by me). Talking about adolescents, he said, "One thing your friends will do for you is drag you down." Excelling or even doing well in school is not a popular thing to do. I wish I had known that in high school. To spend three years being only semi-popular, then benefiting from that extra work for the rest of your life would be a good trade. I've done a hell of a lot of non-monetary work over the years and I won't pretend otherwise. Unfortunately, I just learned a lot of the lesson too late. And, yes, it does get a bit lonely on the pedestal because our society (includes Canada) does not value brains unless you put them to work making money, whch is not something I have ever been much interested in other than earning a basic paycheque. I'd rather read a book, or sit around talking physics, my main interest. As for the moustache--ya got me on that Vic.

Ersun Warncke January 26, 2010 12:02 pm (Pacific time)

Excellent work Daniel. I particularly like the responses from writers claiming that you are un-American (a great compliment) and that you should conform to "American" norms when writing for an "American" audience. What a wonderful demonstration of the need for your work.

Jacob Silverman January 26, 2010 9:50 am (Pacific time)

Daniel Johnson it is you who want Americans to conform to your view, something that will never happen. So you will be able to pursue that "myopia" without intellectual restraints for as long as your resources last.

You're writing as if "Americans" are a monolithic people with one unified viewpoint. Not the case. There are some Americans who agree with with me and some who don't, which is as it should be. You don't have to agree with me but it would redound to your credit if you don't try to make it appear that you, the American, are right and I'm wrong in some fashion.

Jeff Kaye~ January 26, 2010 9:41 am (Pacific time)

Why I Read Salem-News Salem-News has a broad spectrum of well-informed authors and volunteer writers/columnists/contributors who have a wonderful variety of life's experiences to share. DJ, yours are among my favorites, as they provoke (sometimes, somewhat) meaningful discourse, and possibly object lessons are learned. Your story about your son Ben and Johnny Cat is priceless. It's gems like that that keep me reading your articles. Sometimes I'm not particularly interested in the topic, such as Randroids and/or that whole Ayn Rand philosophy, but I read every word so as not to miss those anecdotal golden nuggets of everyday life that are unique, yet seemingly insignificant at first glance. But, they provide a window into the mind of a true humanitarian; a pragmatic philanthropist who gives what he has--his insight into the human plight. Your liberal-leaning, socialist-tending voice is a welcome counter-balance to the right-wing extreme hauteur and bold, intentionally ignorant commentary spewed by politicos and MSM robo-journalists alike. Your European spellings, while somewhat quaint to my eye, are not at all annoying to me--as apparently they are to some. I sincerely hope your comment about Michael Ignatieff proves prophetic. Then we could have not only a gifted columnist and social philosopher such as Daniel Johnson to learn from, but a government to our north that makes sense for its people--one that we could aspire to emulate. That Harper experience must be wearing thin, at least I hope so. I share your view that our Editor-in-Chief, Tim King, is a fine judge of character. It shows in the eclectic, yet almost uniformly compassionate cast of the future of this thing called the world wide web's cutting-edge leader in news that

Thank you for your kind comments, Jeff. It's people like yourself that I write for.

Daniel January 26, 2010 8:56 am (Pacific time)

Daniel J I alway enjoy your reaction provoking writing. I also like your Wilford Brimley photo better . I had a pair of glasses like yours in the old photo , I think they were also used in the Godfather 3 to kill the banker .

Jacob Silverman January 26, 2010 7:46 am (Pacific time)

Daniel Johnson are you familiar with the phrase "When in Rome..." Why should we here in America, at an American-based website that asserts that they are a news-site, feel the need to go verify spelling from a different country's spelling, intellectually speaking? Why don't you accomodate your targeted readers? I see you consider yourself an intellectual, does that promulgate within yourself that you are superior in some way to those you don't consider intellectual, or who have a different ideological perspective? What is your educational background? Have you a list of professional publications (peer reviewed) that you could provide for our review? It is obvious that you pick out quotes from those who meet the agenda you have, what's the intellectual merit in that? Can't you provide your "own" original evaluations based on your academic credentials and no doubt rich life experiences? Do you have a formal academic background in American culture? Have you spent much time here doing field work? Do you feel you know more about American history than we Americans? Have you done formal assessments here? Or do you, which I believe is obvious, search out sources that are simpatico with your admitted left-wing perspectives? There is considerable MYOPIA by those who cannot see the trees as well as the forest, and that's when we can observe what the word "piffle" actually means in action. So how's that word spelled in Alberta, the same way?

Yes, I'm familiar with the term "When in Rome..."; it's a term that many Americans could learn about as they expect the rest of the world to conform to them... I guess the spelling of paycheque is the most he could find to criticize. What's the issue anyway? You know what the word means so move on and read the rest of the article. Or not...

douglas benson January 26, 2010 6:27 am (Pacific time)

Thank you Dan for your thought provoking writing even though some of your ideas I oppose.Far from being conservative I agree with some of thier agenda the right to bear arms ,immigration ect . which is why even though I register Dem. I vote independent . We can agree to disagree ,your recent article is a good example . I am sure there are things you are not willing to change your mind on as do I and many others the magical space daddy is a good example.Peace brother .

Thanks, Doug. My intention is not so much to change people's minds, but to get them to see things in a larger context so that even if they retain their original viewpoint, they hold it within an expanded worldview.

Daniel Johnson January 26, 2010 6:26 am (Pacific time)

One commenter (who I accidentally deleted, but then didn't actually regret it) attacked me for (among other things) writing paycheque, when "everybody knows" it should be "pay check". Well, maybe in Podunk. This is one of the issues that so many people around the world run into with Americans--their arrogance and inflexibility. In their mind, there is only one way to do things and that's the American way. He said he checked Webster's which, of course, is an American dictionary. Paycheque is a British/Canadian usage.

Here's a current Canadian Press story: "Majority of Canadian employees living paycheque to paycheque, survey shows" and it's at

And to that anonymous commenter, who I trust will never come back, I have only one thing to say: Bite me!

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.

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