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In defence of Ann Coulter

March 24, 2010 1 comment

There’s no more stirring line in Canada’s national anthem than the one in which we sing of “The True North strong and free.” But while we like to sing free, we’re not so good at talking free.

Let’s look at the uproar over the Canadian university tour of Anne Coulter, the American lady of far-fetched right wing views. The University of Ottawa’s academic vice-president, Francois Houle — revealing his depth of appreciation for free speech — wrote a stupid and insulting letter warning against remarks that “could lead to criminal charges.”

The inevitable result was a howling protest outside her venue last night. It led Ms. Coulter’s people to cancel the talk. Mission accomplished, U of O, free speech reigns — or is it rained on?

All over Canada, you can find examples of free speech being squelched just about every day. The fact this goes on so frequently is pretty good evidence that Canadians either don’t care about, or don’t understand freedom of expression and what it entails.

I got an earful of sad commentary from CBC Radio’s Ontario phone-in show today when the lines were opened up for public comment.

We heard an array of callers who expressed a sententious and mind-numbing similarity of view: Because Ms. Coulter’s ideas are disturbing, or uncomfortable, intolerant, divisive, or hateful, she’s not wanted in Canada. Somebody thought if she presented herself as a comedian, that would be okay. Predictably, they all said they supported free speech. 

“Our kids should be free of intolerant and divisive stuff,” one caller sanctimoniously declared.

Translation – they shouldn’t be allowed to hear views I disagree with.

I decline to call this attitude “political correctness” because I see nothing correct about it.

Ms. Coulter has gone on to the University of Calgary, where she’s joked that she’ll give her speech wearing a burka. Security is being ramped up, but we can expect she’ll get a warmer welcome there than she did in Ottawa.

Ms. Coulter’s writings and her speeches are certainly filled with vicious stuff. Leaf through her book, Guilty: Liberal Victims and their Assault on America (Crown Forum) and you’ll quickly get the drift. Professional provocateur. A jerk. But someone so dangerous we daren’t hear what she has to say?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first outbreak of the Canadian disease — the “you can’t say that in Canada” syndrome. It’s been around for a long time. One of Canadian broadcasting’s most lucid interviewers, Joyce Davidson, was hounded off the airwaves for saying, way back in 1959, that “like most Canadians, I’m indifferent to the visit of the Queen.” That wouldn’t cause a ripple today, but there was hell to pay back then.

Consider these more current cases:

The federal government barred the former American Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, from entering Canada for a speech at the same University of Ottawa. Ottawa also refused entry to three British MPs who were aggressive critics of Western involvement in the Afghan war. A speech at Montreal’s Concordia University by Benjamin Netanyahu, now the Israeli prime minister, had to be cancelled because of anti-Jewish protests by pro-Arab students. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a critic of Middle Eastern studies in North America, has been told to stay away from Canadian campuses.

There’s exquisite irony in Ezra Levant’s threat to complain to the Canadian Human Rights Commission about Ms. Coulter’s treatment.

The great Canadian civil liberties lawyer, Alan Borovoy, said recently that if there’s no invective in an argument it’s probably not worth listening to.

There are a lot of things in this country we need to feel uncomfortable about. Shutting down unpopular speakers — or trying to keep controversial books out of Canadian schools — may delude us into feeling comfortable. But don’t call it freedom of expression.

Letters to Mr. Harper

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Who writes letters anymore? Today’s tweets, Facebook postings and abbreviated emails are as far as most people get in putting words to “paper” — or to cyberspace.

Thinking about all the great books made up of letters written by great men and women — actors, artists, authors, politicians — makes me wonder whether we’ll enjoy such literary pearls in the future.

So it’s reassuring to see we still have letter writers among us.

Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi and other marvellous books, set out in 2007 to send a book to Prime Minister Harper every two weeks. With each book (used, by the way) he sent a warm and chatty letter discussing its ideas, or reflecting on thoughts it brought to mind. The letters are a delight to read, and point us to a title that if one hasn’t read, one certainly should.

He’s published the letters in What is Stephen Harper Reading ? (Vintage Canada). A small trade paperback, it’s filled with delightful observations and ironic comments.

In his first letter to Mr. Harper, discussing Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Yann points out the continuing relevance and enduring quality of great literature. Of this book, he says

That is the greatness of literature, and its paradox, that in reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves.

Martel has wisely made no assumptions about Mr. Harper’s reading habits. He concedes the PM is a busy man. It would be nice, he thinks, if he could find a little space “for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.”

But he’s never had any indication whether Mr. Harper has even seen any of the 55 books  he’s sent, let alone read any. He’s had two responses from officials in the PM’s Office, to his first and fifty-fourth books. Bare bureaucratic thank-you notes, no suggestion as to what’s become of them.

Martel admits to a political motive in sending the books. He got the idea when he was among a group of artists and writers at a 50th anniversary event for the Canada Council. They all trooped over to the House of Commons where the Heritage minister of the day acknowledged their presence. Mr. Harper didn’t even look up to the Speaker’s gallery when Martel and the others stood to receive the respect of Parliament.

So he decided to send books to the Prime Minister. “As a citizen of the arts, I have a right to know what my elected leader thinks about reading.”

Meanwhile, books of letters continue to come to market. Over a million letters were sent to Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of the President. Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation (HarperCollins) contains 240 of the most touching of these notes.

Another book of Van Gogh letters will be in book stores next month. The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters (Royal Academy Publications), offers fresh insights into our understanding of this troubled figure. It’s in books like this that we gain a fuller understanding of the society in which these memorable charactersa lived and worked.

Closer to home, British Columbia’s Caitlin press has published The Railroader’s Wife. It’s a collection of letters written between 1912 and 1914 by Bernice Martin to her family back in Wisconsin. She wrote of her husband’s work in the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway through central B.C.

Then, there’s David Staines’ charming work, The Letters of Stephen Leacock (Oxford University Press). He talks about the book here:

Letters like these always make good reading, especially when they’re meant for someone else. In Leacock’s case, Staines says, his letters were mostly to his publishers, his “real family” and his “life line to the real world.”

So write a letter today. It might end up in a book!

Stand on guard for O Canada!

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

UIPDATE: Prime Minister’s Office announces no change in O Canada — “Public has spoken loud and clear.” 

Have a heart for poor old Robert Stanley Weir. How would you feel if your words were rewritten every generation or so — simply because some people thought they could improve on the original?

The fuss-up over the Harper government’s proposal to change Canada’s national anthem, O Canada, is generally being panned across the country. (The official story of the anthem is here).

For anyone who hasn’t heard, the subject came up in the Throne Speech at the opening of Parliament this week. The line that supposedly needs changing:

“True patriot love in all thy son’s commands.”

It’s suggested we revert to Mr. Weir’s original words, which were changed when O Canada was officially adopted in 1980. They read:

“True patriot love thou dost in us command.”

Before we go any further, give a listen to O Canada as it should be sung:

Stirring, isn’t it?

The reaction to taking what some see as gender bias out of the anthem falls into three camps:

  1. There’s far more important things — such as jobs and climate change — for Parliament to consider than this non-issue
  2. Good idea – daughters as well as sons stand on guard for O Canada
  3. Leave well enough alone – the anthem speaks to our history as well as our present-day attitudes

As a guy with three daughters, I’m all for gender equality. But I’m in Camp No. 3.  A national anthem must express the heritage of a nation. The Star Spangled Banner, for example, speaks of “bombs bursting in air.” I don’t think any Americans want to see bombs over their cities, but it is worthwhile to remember their country was born in revolution and strife.

So it is with the line in our anthem about our “home and native land.” Some are saying this needs to be dropped because Canada is not the native land of our new citizens. My response is that Canada will become the native land of their children. For them, our anthem stands as an ode to the future as well as to the past.

Few stories have touched off more comments on the news sites of the web. I liked this reaction from a reader of The National Post:

If anything should be changed in O Canada, it should be the deletion of the reference to God. Not all of us believe in a god and as such any type of religious reference should be kept out of the public domain.

Finally, there are the cynical among us who see the anthem dust-up as a clever move by the Harperites to divert public attention. More likely, it’s another attempt to carry political correctness to the extreme — while picking up a few votes along the way.

So as a public service (and because many of us aren’t sure of the words of the current version), I’ve checked out the words and history of O Canada in Scholastic Canada’s beautifully illustrated book on the anthem. Here’s the refrain. Memorize it!

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Our Games, their headlines

March 1, 2010 Leave a comment

The Winter Olympics have been the big story in Canada the past two weeks. Today’s papers are filled with it. How about the rest of the world? A sampling of front pages I collected from The Newseum:

Fairbanks, Alaska, News-Miner. No surprise here.

Phoeniz, Arizona, Republic. Must be Wayne Gretzky’s influence:

Los Angeles Daily News. All eyes north!

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Danbury, Conn., News-Times – Loser’s View:

Washington Post: What else from the U.S. capital?

And the New York Times. The story leads with an anecdote about a Catholic priest senhding people home early from Mass so they can  watch the game.

The New York Daily News. (No. 1 in circulation.) They still love hockey:

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