As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re not a socialist at 20 you have no heart, and if you’re still a socialist at 40 you have no brain.” Except that he didn’t say it. In fact, the quote has been attributed in one form or another to a remarkable variety of people, mostly very obscure French politicians. But the larger point is that the line has been used, in all cases and for a very long time, as a soft and somewhat condescending cudgel to prevent you or anyone else from getting any daft ideas about wealth redistribution or cooperative ownership.
At 35 and still a socialist, Charles Demers regularly exercises both of those organs in his job as standup comic, prize-winning writer, regular guest on CBC’s The Debaters, and exceedingly proud dad. But he’s frosty enough to know that the traditional left is under siege in ways that he never could have imagined as a teenage member of the Communist League’s youth wing—a time he hilariously recounts in the very first chapter of his 2015 book, The Horrors—and that he’s now forced to confront in his one-man show, Leftovers.
“Stephen Harper winning again would have been the easiest thing for the script, but I actually feel like Trudeau winning did the best things for the show,” he says, talking to the Straight at an East Side rehearsal space as he and director Marcus Youssef prepare a retooled Leftovers for this year’s PuSh Festival. “There’s no grey in the Harper situation. In January 2016, for a socialist, there are some ambiguities in the air. How do you deal with the fact that everyone you know is happy, and you’re supposed, by definition, not to be?”
Since he debuted Leftovers last March at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Canada has elected to slip the velvet glove back onto the iron fist, installing a more likable creature at 24 Sussex Drive to pursue our nation’s fealty to “centrist” politics, big business, and hollowed-out social programs. In The Horrors, Demers refers to the Liberal tradition of silky double-dealing as “hugs then pipelines”.
“I literally, on election night, felt almost no joy, which people around me could not process,” Demers says with a chuckle that swiftly nosedives into a sigh. “I feel that we’ve been totally paralyzed by the fact that now there’s a guy who’s in that we kind of like on a personal level, and he says nice things.”
Demers acknowledges that the younger Trudeau soared into office on nostalgia and the “great narrative sweep” that caps 10 years under Harper, while a new generation has come of age inside the all-consuming conditions of global capitalism, where markets look as immutable as the law of gravity. Meanwhile, adds the distressed comic, in a time of entrepreneurial charity and billionaire gurus like Steve Jobs, “people talk about the left as if it’s Bono.
“If we don’t pretty quickly figure out a way to differentiate what the left is from this kind of progressivist centre that knows all the right cultural things to say, then we have lopped off a whole end of the political spectrum in this country,” Demers explains. “And that was kind of the genesis of the show, that feeling of suffocation, the absolute collapse of political possibilities and the total failure of the political imagination. We live in a time when everything is supposed to be possible, with the exception of our political and economic lives. There, all the levers are in place. Whatever you want a phone to be able to do, well, dream as big as you can. But when it comes to the way that we organize our society, all that stuff is locked in.”
Still, “total despair is a cop-out” in Demers’s view, which is hardly surprising since his principal talent is for comedy. And not that Samuel Beckett, staring-into-the-abyss version of comedy, either.
“I have a Charlie Chaplin tattoo that I got when I was 18,” he says, adding to a short list of leftist comic heroes that also includes Zero Mostel and Dick Gregory. “I guess the thing about Chaplin’s comedy is that it comes from such a deep well of love for humanity. And I think that has to be the underlying sensibility if you’re going to keep that kind of acidic political humour from burning the love or empathy out of what you’re doing. If you don’t feel like human beings are worth loving and protecting, then I think it will always hollow out what you’re doing into a kind of nihilism.”
And with that, Demers concludes, sounding nothing like an obscure French politician, “something really profound is lost.”
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Leftovers at the York Theatre from January 26 to 30, with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on January 30.