Thursday, September 26, 2013

Margaret Wente on Ignatieff, power and Power

In one of the only bits of Margaret Wente’s column on Michael Ignatieff’s new book that doesn’t seem like a rehash of articles in the Toronto Star, the National Post and the Sun (there are 200 pages to choose from - why use the same quotes?), Wente describes Ignatieff's decision to enter politics like this:   “He wanted to stop being a spectator and be a player instead.  He longed to join the ranks of intellectuals like Vaclav Havel and Samantha Power, his Harvard pal who became Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN…”.
The bit about Power is curious.  Ignatieff, (born 1947), was approached by Liberals to enter electoral politics in 2004.  By 2005, he'd made up his mind.
Samantha Power, born 1970, has never stood for elected office and was, like Ignatieff, a fellow writer/academic when Ignatieff decided to enter the fray and run for a seat and the Liberal leadership.  
While she later worked behind the scenes on Obama’s 2008 election campaign and served as a foreign policy advisor, Power was appointed UN ambassador in 2013, well after Ignatieff’s 2011 defeat and resignation.  How then, was Samantha Power an inspiration or model for Ignatieff’s decision to “stop being a spectator and be a player”
In fact, some people have argued that it went the other way:  “Power was influenced by the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff”.  Given the age difference and timeline, this makes more sense.
Compared to the plagiarism problems last year, the fake Occupy protester and other similar issues, this head scratcher is no big deal, but it does speak to the value of Wente’s observations.  Rather than curious tossed off claims like these, it would have been nice to see that she’d read Ignatieff’s book and was able to pull out and discuss passages that hadn’t already been covered elsewhere - especially in a column dealing with hubris and over-rated public intellectuals.  

Update:   This also now appears at the end of the column:  

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version which said Bob Rae threw his support behind Stéphane Dion in the final leadership ballot in 2006.

Further Update on that puzzling Editor’s Note (perhaps an example of a grudging correction whose aim is not to set the record straight, but rather to limit the damage of the initial error). 
Wente originally said Rae threw his support behind Dion to prevent Ignatieff from winning the 2006 leadership.  Now the “corrected” version reads, “During the 2006 Liberal leadership convention he refused to release his delegates to his old friend, with the result that Stéphane Dion, not Mr. Ignatieff, won the race.” 
Reports about the 2006 convention however, indicate clearly that Rae “released his delegates”.  This means, obviously, that he released his delegates to vote as they saw fit on the final ballot.  Had Rae “refused to release his delegates” as The Globe now claims, Rae would have been obliged to ask them to support a particular candidate (unless he said, “I release you to vote for anyone but Ignatieff,” something which is pretty well unheard of, and which, from what I can determine, he did not do). 
To be truthful then, that Editor’s Note requires correction.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Margaret Wente and Amanda Lindhout: when aging journalists eat their young

Here’s how Margaret Wente begins an article about Amanda Lindhout, whose book about being kidnapped and gang-raped in Somalia for 460 days was recently released:

At 24, Amanda Lindhout decided to quit her job as a cocktail waitress in Calgary and become a foreign correspondent. She had no journalism experience, no contacts and no background in history or geopolitics – she was a high-school graduate – but she didn’t let that hold her back. She bought plane tickets to Kabul and Baghdad, but almost nobody was interested in her work. She decided that to make her name, she needed a breakthrough – something really big, like the hurricane in Galveston that had made Dan Rather famous.

Here’s how other reports like the New York Times, describe her background:  Born in 1981,

“Lindhout began her… travels at age 20, heading first to Venezuela. She financed her peripatetic lifestyle by saving the tips she made as a high-end cocktail waitress, taking off for months at a time, roving on a shoestring budget through Central and South America, Asia, and Africa”.

USA Today writes that Lindhout was a “seasoned backpack traveler” who “visited dozens of countries in seven years, from Burma to South America to Ethiopia… returning to her home in Canada to wait tables only when she ran out of money”.  “After six months in Kabul and another seven in Baghdad, Lindhout, at age 27 in 2008”, ventured to Mogadishu.
“She backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, then to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan… she continued to push the envelope, moving more and more off the beaten path…Although she had no formal schooling in journalism, Lindhout began writing columns for her hometown paper, and did freelance work in Afghanistan and Iraq. After almost seven months in Baghdad working as a television journalist for Press TV”, Lindhout set out for Somalia.
So Ms. Lindhout travelled for many years, then began to write about her experiences, taking the initiative to try and sell stories and photos, occasionally returning to wait tables to help finance her journalism ambitions.  But Ms. Wente isn’t prepared to give her credit for that, or indeed even for her own memoir, which as every review notes, was “co-written” by Lindhout (first author) and New York Times Magazine’s Sarah Corbett. “It was actually written by Sara Corbett,” Wente says. 
Nor is there any mention by Wente of what The New York Times and others describe as Lindhout’s unfathomable grace and wisdom”, or her substantial charitable work on behalf of Somali women and children since her release.  (What is this article, really? Not a book review, not a discussion of larger issues, just sniping at Lindhout’s character, her looks, and what seems like jealousy of the attention she’s received).
While Wente’s lack of generosity is remarkable in its specificity, it’s pretty much in keeping with the way she usually describes young people (particularly young women) - as lazy, stupid, naïve narcissists.  While she slips in a swipe at Lindhout’s high school diploma, those who have the nerve to think they’re university material usually come in for even more disdain. 

I’m not suggesting Lindhout’s decisions didn’t have some bearing on her capture, or that her rescue may not have been dangerous or costly. But Wente hasn’t similarly attacked the thrill-seeking skiers and snowmobilers who go out of bounds, cause avalanches and provoke expensive searches in the Rockies every winter.

Apparently, unlike Ms. Wente, Lindhout comes from a hard scrabble background, and job prospects for young people these days are bleak.  For example, there’s a tragic story today about the effects of unpaid internships on a young man desperate to work in journalism.  
So given Ms. Wente’s criticism of Lindhout, it’s worth remembering both her significant plagiarism problems last year, and what she did in one of those other easy, repeated columns about stupid, naive young people. Wente’s fake Occupy protester is pretty ironic.  An eager young, would-be journalist – willing to travel - might have gone down the street to try and snag an interview.
It’s just possible that, unlike some of her betters, Amanda Lindhout was at least trying to work for a living.  For that, and for what she’s done since, she deserves a fairer hearing, and a better journalistic role model.