Of the many pointless and mastubatory philosophical exercises available to me, one of my least favorite is the question of whether the modern media's array of opinion pornstars actually think like that or pretend to think like that to make money. It's an asshats-on-the-head-of-a-pin type of question. Therefore, though you may catch me pointing out that Ann Coulter comes off like a bulging, yowling sack of crazy, you'll rarely catch me arguing about whether she's just like that because it's tremendously lucrative for her.
Whether she's in it for the money for for the lulz or because she believes it, I find much of what she says to be useless and annoying polemics. Mature societies respond to purveyors of silly polemics by ignoring them or by employing criticism, ridicule, or even responsive polemics in the marketplace of ideas. Mature societies do not rush to censor the purveyors of silly polemics out of the fear that various thin-skinned constituencies are unable to participate in the marketplace of ideas and therefore might suffer tragic unredressed butthurt.
Unfortunately for Ann Coulter, she's visiting Canada, not a mature society.
Frequent readers know that we're steadfast critics of Canada's Human Rights Commissions and their nearly unfettered power to harass and suppress dissenters on the pretense that various interest groups have suffered offense. Canada, as we've said, is the land where you can be sued for calling a censor a censor, or for making fun of a censor.
So it should come as no surprise that Ann Coulter's imminent speaking tour of Canada has provoked little paroxysms of thuggery.
Today's thuggery comes from Francois Houle, Vice-President Academic and Provost at the University of Ottawa. At the risk of being convicted in absentia of a hate crime, I will not be translating everything I say about him into French; you'll just have to read everything in a really nasal voice and pretend. M. Houle is appalled that Ms. Coulter is on a ranting tour of Canada, and sent her a "nice freedom you have, it would be a shame if anything happened to it" email:
Dear Ms. Coulter,
I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here. You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. There is a strong tradition in Canada, including at this University, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.
I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.
Vice-recteur aux études / Vice-President Academic and Provost
Université d’Ottawa / University of Ottawa
550, rue Cumberland Street
Ottawa (ON) K1N 6N5
téléphone / telephone : 613 562-5737
télécopieur / fax : 613 562-5103
In America, or any other mature society, M. Houle's pout would be seen merely as further evidence that certain segments of academia scorn the freedoms that allow them to wallow in self-sustaining drivel and nail credulous grad students. In Canada, however — the land of unsuccessful but ruinously expensive show trials against McClean's and Mark Steyn for thoughtcrime — Houle's email is a credible threat of government censorship. In a system where any whiner — no matter how self-interested or biased — can engage Canada's bureaus of censorship in speech-targeting crusades, Houle's message is the equivalent of saying "if you come into my house, I shall have you arrested for trespass." The only thing remarkable about Houle's email is that he made his threat in a relatively understated fashion. Canada's recent history leaves little doubt that if Houle or his ilk wish, they can convince Canada's censors to initiate an open-ended, standard-free "investigation" of Coulter if she says anything falling outside the narrow spectrum of what the professionally offended see as acceptable speech.
Ottowa students toddle a few steps closer to maturity by starting a blog to criticize Coulter, a classic example of response speech in the marketplace of ideas. They're Canadian, sort-of educated by the likes of Houle, so don't blame them if they don't quite have the hang of it yet:
A person who proudly uses this kind of blatantly sexist rhetoric does not deserve the honour of lecturing to students.
[Clint] Deserve's got nothing to do with it, kid.[/Clint]
I suspect that if you forced me onto a political spectrum, I'd wind up closer to Houle than to Coulter on many, many points. Nevertheless I find him and his ilk entirely repugnant. Count me as 100% in Coulter's column on this question: if Canada is to be taken seriously as a free society, Coulter should be able to snowshoe her way around being an asshole without a credible threat of prosecution or suit.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of international relations, and to forward the principles embodied in this blog's Canadian end-user agreement, it seems only fitting to respond to M. Houle with a letter. You can find his email on the school's web site linked above; perhaps you can send one as well. Here is mine:
Dear M. Houle,
There may come a time when you see fit to visit the United States of America. As you took pains to warn Ann Coulter of the threats she faces in your great nation, it seems only fair to warn you of the threats you would face in mine.
You will find here, sir, a nation steadily recovering from the world's grim heritage of racism, working towards an ideal of equality. Though you may encounter racists — or even people who form preconceived notions of others based on "social condition" — by and large you will find that Americans judge people based upon how they act and what they accomplish.
You might encounter a few racists. You may also encounter a few jackasses — people of the sort who are not necessarily racist, but who find racial humor amusing. I bid you to sit down for this next part, sir, and perhaps fix yourself a fortifying fair-trade coffee before reading it. You will discover that in this nation, assholes cannot be jailed or sued simply because they are assholes. There are no universal help lines to call if you find yourself offended by something that somebody said about some third party, or even about you. You might want to call ahead to locate some welcoming university faculty meetings to which you can turn for emotional succor should this prove overwhelming.
No, here you will find that assholes can only be prosecuted or sued reliably if their conduct rises to the level of true threats or advocacy of imminent likely lawless action. Our primitive citizens remain hopelessly mired in the quaint idea that when it comes to rude and abrasive speech, a free people can take care of themselves by talking back, and eventually prevailing in the public discourse. You may encounter snatches of folk sayings along these lines, such as "free speech" and "marketplace of ideas" and "Oh, for Christ sake grow a pair, you big girl's blouse." Though occasionally correct-thinking local officials and university administrators succeed in holding miscreants officially accountable for incorrect thought, the tide is against them.
What may be more upsetting to you, sir, is that you will encounter a rough populace largely unreceptive to the proper role of government and its preferred elite, such as (you will, modesty aside, acknowledge) yourself. You will find many Americans skeptical of the idea that it is the role of government, or university professors, to tell them what to think, what to say, how to live — even when government committees and university ovulars have committed months of intense study to those subjects and made powerfully insightful recommendations. Rest assured that there are still large pockets of citizens who look to the government for instruction. Can you find some? Yes, you can.
I wish you, sir, a felicitous journey. Terribly sorry about all the English everywhere.
Hat tip: Kathy Shaidle. I disagree with her on a vast amount of substance, but she continues to speak her mind under credible threat of prosecution and financial ruin.
Edit: One roundup of reactions.
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