Recently Margaret Wente went after Naomi Klein – first for her looks, and then – having not bothered to read Klein’s new book – for what she (falsely) claimed was not included in it. It’s one thing to launch contrarian volleys at attractive young female authors who are getting loads of press; someone of Klein’s stature expects legitimate blowback, and has a platform from which to respond. But this week’s rant contains a bizarre, unsubstantiated and unnecessary attack on two obscure women – something I find problematical.
How a school project by a Vancouver design student came to be dragged into Wente’s column as the face of state tyranny is puzzling. Here’s the relevant bit:
“soft paternalism” can morph pretty quickly into “soft authoritarianism,” exemplified by people who are dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. I ran across a prime example in an e-book by Vancouver’s Bree Galbraith called The Designer Nudge. In it is an interview with Dr. Verity Livingstone, a breastfeeding specialist at the University of British Columbia. The issue is how to nudge new mothers into breastfeeding. Dr. Livingstone is firmly in the camp that believes bottle-feeding borders on child abuse and should be discouraged by any means available, even duplicitous ones.
“If you are trying to move them along, to nudge them, you have to decide if the information has to be ‘scary’ to possibly shift them sooner than the positive bit would,” she said. That’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s a short step from nudging people to terrorizing them and pushing them around.
“They are simply imposing their own preferences on the rest of us”, Wente concludes, “And I don’t like bullies”.
Cass Sunstein, originator of “nudge theory”, advisor to Presidents, well known public figure, gets a mention at the beginning of the article, but escapes Wente’s wrath. Nor are powerful figures like Mayor Bloomberg - whose soda ban initiatives would make a more suitable target - positioned as examples of nudge theory nudging into tyranny. Instead of advertisers, leading opinion makers or legislators, Wente zeroes in on a strange target - an Emily Carr student who published a set of interviews on the interface of nudge theory and design with a few educators and experts. Among these, Wente singles out Dr. Livingstone as a “duplicitous” terrorizer.
Unlike Sunstein, or Klein, Ms. Galbraith’s academic writing has very limited readership. She’s apparently a good student, and the small publication Wente has somehow (and this remains a mystery) unearthed as an example of tyranny is apparently work for her Master’s degree.
In it, Galbraith makes no authoritarian pronouncements. She poses mostly intelligent questions. It's hard to see how the questions, or Dr. Livingstone's answers would seem to any normal person to be particularly “terrorizing”, “dogmatic”, “self-righteous”, or “wrong”. Even were this so, Wente doesn’t make a case for it; unlike the student, she simply states these things as fact. The only ‘evidence’ appears to reside in one word (“scary”) pulled from a lengthy and otherwise benign interview with Dr. Verity Livingstone.
You can read it here. It contains standard language and policy on breastfeeding from Health Canada, the Canadian Pediatric Association, the WHO, or similar bodies. Health Canada is unequivocal: “Breastfeeding is the normal and unequalled method of feeding infants. Health Canada promotes breastfeeding - exclusively for the first six months, and sustained for up to two years or longer”. The American Academy of Pediatrics goes further: “Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice”. But Ms. Wente takes no issue with the big science bodies, focusing on Dr. Livingstone - who nowhere in her interview suggests, as Wente claims, that bottle feeding “borders on child abuse”.
On the contrary, she acknowledges that some women can’t breastfeed “for legitimate reasons”, and as a result “are feeling a guilt trip put upon them. We have to be aware that we can’t be so fanatical that there is only one way of doing it, accept that there are times when people’s behaviours can’t be changed – we have to support everyone”.
So why select Livingstone and misrepresent her in the pages of The Globe and Mail? Did Wente contact the women first? If not, why ambush individuals who are in no position to respond or command the kind of readership of Wente herself, or Sunstein, or Klein? Aren’t there many more obvious examples of “scaring” people into particular behaviours? And why not link to the student’s publication so readers could judge for themselves?
Ms. Wente seems to have a thing about the “tyranny” of breast-feeding. In a column a few years ago, she used some of the same language about “child abuse”, along with material that demonstrated attribution problems related to an earlier article by Helen Rumbelow and a blogger named Susan Barston.
Wente: One of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research is Michael Kramer, professor of pediatrics at McGill University. “The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” he says. The trouble is that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and neither side is being very scientific. “When it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational.”
Rumbelow: …one of the world’s most authoritative sources of breastfeeding research… Michael Kramer, professor of paediatrics at McGill University, Montreal.…“The public health breastfeeding promotion information is way out of date,” Kramer says. The trouble is, he said, that the breastfeeding lobby is at war with the formula milk industry, and “neither side is being very scientific ... when it becomes a crusade, people are not very rational.”
In Wente’s version the quotation marks slide, shortening one quote and presenting as her own prose some of what in Rumbelow’s article appeared as Kramer's words. In addition she seems to take some of Rumbelow’s summary of Kramer as her own prose. In the same piece, she appeared to borrow from writer Suzanne Barston, who published an interview with Joan Wolf on her website.
Joan Wolf, in Suzanne Barston’s article:
…breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children… we are making mothers crazy today by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids.
Wente reproduces this, casting the same words published in the interview as something Wolf “told one group of moms”:
"Breastfeeding is part of what I call total motherhood, the belief that mothers are both capable of and responsible for preventing any imaginable risk to their babies and children," she told one group of moms. "We are making mothers crazy by telling them that they have the power, if they are willing to put forth the effort and make sacrifices, to prevent all sorts of bad things from happening to their kids."
In addition to intellectual and journalistic sloppiness, it’s the unnecessary mean spiritedness in Wente’s writing which continues to astonish – the seemingly arbitrary selection of sacrificial victims who can’t fight back. Like the zero tolerance she claims we should reserve only for student plagiarists, when it comes to ‘bullying’, Ms. Wente seems remarkably lacking in self awareness.