Author: Jonathan Kay

When Censorship Is Crowdsourced

Editor’s note: The text that follows is adapted from a speech delivered recently by the author to the Montreal Press Club.  On the op-ed page of The New York Times, former Central Intelligence Agency general counsel Jeffrey Smith recently argued that Donald Trump’s decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan “violated Mr. Brennan’s First Amendment right to speak freely.” It’s an intriguing thesis. And, being a former lawyer who once wrote long law school essays about constitutional freedoms, I read it with keen interest. But I also felt a twinge of nostalgia as I parsed Smith’s lawyerly arguments. Notwithstanding the nature of Mr. Trump’s treatment of Mr. Brennan, the gravest threats to free speech in democratic countries now have little or nothing to do with government action (which is what Constitutions serve to restrain). And with few exceptions, public officials now sit as bystanders to the fight over who can say what. Last month, Facebook, Apple and Google deleted gigabytes of video, audio and text content from Alex Jones’ Infowars …

Hashtags and Terror Narratives in Toronto

On April 15, 2013, hours after the Tsarnaev brothers set off explosives at the Boston Marathon, the #bostonstrong hashtag went viral on Twitter. A week later, at the first home Red Sox game following the tragedy, the Fenway Park public announcer declared, “We are one. We are strong. We are Boston. We are Boston strong.” Since then, the same meme has been adopted by numerous other cities in the wake of local tragedies—including my own, Toronto, which proclaimed itself #TorontoStrong following a deadly van attack that took 10 lives in April. The idea that communities become stronger in the wake of mass murder is attractive. And sometimes, it’s even true—because outside threats stimulate a spirit of collective defiance and solidarity. But many acts of mass murder are perpetrated by mentally ill killers who have no political motive. In these cases, tragedies can actually widen fissures within society, because different factions co-opt the crime to advance their own agendas. Collective strength can exist only when citizens have a sense of common purpose. On Sunday, Toronto suffered …

‘Grope-gate’ and #MeToo’s Crisis of Legitimacy

In both Canada and the United States, groping scandals have opened a window into the hypocrisies that infect national politics. American Christian voters may claim to support politicians who embody family values. But in 2016, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who stood accused of groping women “like an octopus,” and who was caught on tape bragging about doing so. In Canada, on the other hand, the more-feminist-than-thou prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has spent the first days of summer issuing contradictory explanations of a recently publicized encounter he had with a female journalist at an August 2000 music festival in British Columbia. The journalist called what happened “groping.” Though no one has any idea what body part was touched, or in what way, Trudeau reportedly felt the need to apologize to the woman at the time. But in recent days, the Prime Minister has changed his story. He now claims either not to remember the details of the encounter, or to suggest that the truth of the matter is unknowable …

Social Justice is Popular. But the Rule of Law is Sacrosanct

Editor’s note: The text that follows is adapted from the 2018 Rule of Law Lecture, delivered by Canadian Quillette editor Jonathan Kay to the Law Society of British Columbia on June 7 in Vancouver. This is a speech about the interplay of law and social justice. And I can’t think of a better way to start it than by praising a great lawyer who died last month at the age of 104—a black woman by the name of Dovey Johnson Roundtree. In 1965, Ms. Roundtree represented a poor black day laborer named Raymond Crump Jr., who stood falsely accused of killing a glamorous white woman in Washington D.C. Everyone assumed Crump would hang. But in court, Roundtree saved Crump’s life. Even before that, Roundtree, did amazing things. She was one of the first female officers—of any race—in the U.S. military. And in 1952, she helped strike down racial segregation on interstate buses. I start with Ms. Roundtree because she embodies a story that lawyers love telling. It is a story in which law and social …

How Canada’s Cult of the Noble Savage Harms Its Indigenous Peoples

A few months ago, I spoke at a small academic conference in Toronto about the future of Canada. As with many events of this type in my country, it began with sacred rituals. An Ojibway elder, described to us as a “keeper of sacred pipes,” took to the podium and showed us a jar of medicine water. In her private rituals, the elder explained, she would pray with this water, and talk to it as she smoked her pipes. After this, she instructed us to join her in “paying respect to the four directions”—which required that we stand up and face the indicated compass point, moving clockwise from north to west as she performed her rituals. “With this sacred water, we smudge this space,” she said. “Let us live the lesson of being in harmony with all creatures.” Then the elder instructed us to bend down, touch the floor, and say migwetch—thank you, in her Ojibway language—to signal our gratitude. The room was full of middle-aged former politicians who, like me, did not want to …

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other. If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.” In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on …

Racism, Anti-Racism, and Orientalism at LitHub

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the most influential works of our time, and one of the most ubiquitous: scan the bookshelves of any liberal-arts major, and you likely will find the 1978 book with pride of place alongside such contemporaneous post-colonial classics as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Even those who’ve never opened Orientalism will be familiar with some of its broad themes, especially the idea that Western scholars have systematically denigrated the cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with insulting stereotypes, depicting the Orient as an exotic “Other” full of backwards, mystical man-children. One sometimes even hears the word used as a verb or gerund — “othering” — as a means to attack arguments perceived to be Eurocentric. The idea of the Other has become a laugh line among conservatives over time. (“Stop Othering me!”) But even right-wing critics should acknowledge that Said’s book offered genuinely valid critiques of the condescending way in which Western writers …

“Canada Has Gone Mad”: Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou

Late last year, I wrote an essay for Quillette describing how the fight against cultural appropriation had suddenly gone viral in Canada—particularly regarding stories about indigenous peoples. The issue “has become the subject of full-blown social panic among the country’s intellectual class,” I argued, and would remain so until artists and authors of color themselves “eventually become exasperated by doctrines that limit the influence and reach of their [own] literature.” I’m not holding my breath. But a telling controversy involving a newly published novel by Athabasca University creative writing professor Angie Abdou does show us that even some First Nations intellectuals now are becoming infuriated by the campaign to control the permitted range of literary expression in my country. I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come. *     *     * Abdou is one of those progressive, conscientious, sensitive white writers who dedicate themselves to all the penitent literary rituals of our age. She seems to have done everything humanly possible to make sure her new book, In Case I Go, would offend no one, …

Making a Stand for Cultural Universalism

Earlier this year, I spoke at a panel discussion in New York City to mark the unveiling of Quebec—an enormous 9’ by 10’ painting that aspires to capture the full sweep of French Canadian history on one canvas, from Samuel de Champlain to the modern age of indigenous activism. The American artist, Adam Miller, grew up in the Pacific northwest, and studied the great masters in Florence. The evening’s featured speaker was Donald Kuspit, an eminent Jewish art critic who briefly lived in Quebec, but otherwise has little connection to the largely Catholic society of French Canada. He described Quebec as a luminous postmodern take on the Baroque—a style that took definitive expression in the works of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens—and praised Miller for channelling influences adapted from the book of Genesis, imagery of the dead Christ, and Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, Adoration of the Magi. Which is to say, Quebec is very much part of that great cultural mash-up we call Western culture. And if Miller—who does not speak French—had engaged in …