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It’s ironic that Jian Ghomeshi’s star rose in
part because of his amazing interview with another troubled celebrity - the
weirdly talented actor and wannabe musician, Billy Bob Thornton – a show which
will now live in memory as a kind of performance art pas-de-deux. Maybe they instinctively “got” something
about each other. Maybe not.
I liked Q and was a regular listener. Because he was something of a musician, Ghomeshi
could ask decent questions about (pop) music, and was either a great,
empathetic interviewer or an amazing fake.
Though nothing is yet proven, the picture emerging is pretty convincing
and dark. One can easily imagine why
women have not come forward until now.
Q was an important part of Canadians’ daily
life, and its passing (even if resurrected, it can’t be the same) is sad –
particularly given the gruesome reasons, the shock and betrayal. Dissecting why the show worked may be
relevant to why Ghomeshi was able to do what he did. Jeet Heer’s Storify is interesting, as is this:
(I didn’t realize Ghomeshi didn’t write his opening essays - perhaps because he
seemed to take personal credit for them afterwards). I’m left wondering about a lot of things - the
relationship between personal flaws and talent, institutions and employees, stars
and audiences, narcissism at large and up close, the wider issue of “consent”, and
a few other things like Rob Ford – especially since it now appears Ghomeshi’s
story also involves video.
This is purely speculative, but given his
own past references to mental health (neuroses and anxiety disorders), and particularly
the fact that Ghomeshi required a replica of his childhood teddy bear be turned
away from his violent sexual acts – the former CBC star may suffer from some
form of mental illness (though he’s obviously very high functioning, and responsible
for his actions). The high functioning
part would not be unusual; think of Russell Williams, a predator also enabled
by his status within a different kind of institutional culture.
I find it slightly easier to imagine how
Williams performed his military job while diverting enormous amounts of time to
sexual perversion, and ultimately, murder.
His duties were command and control related rather than creative. He was highly organized and reportedly had
issues with obsessive-compulsive disorder which may have been partially
camouflaged by the organization and fastidiousness of military culture. In this way the two parts of his life seem in
some way related. Ghomeshi’s issues were
perhaps masked by a different, artsy, bureaucracy that tolerated eccentricities.
Still, it’s a bit harder to grasp the yawning
discrepancy between the creative talents of Ghomeshi, including his sympathetic
on-air persona - and his completely opposite, repugnant private life. It’s almost as though the show didn’t just feature great performances and artists,
it was performance – a daily
‘creation’, or fiction, everything he himself was not - pitch perfect for his
audience - for his own, and their, self-reflection.
One wonders whether there’s a link between what
seems like a hole in the core of Ghomeshi’s being, and the remarkable cultural
edifice he crafted to fill that excavation.
He (and his insufficiently acknowledged team) seemed to intuit exactly what
the audience wanted in terms of tone, even as he himself was deaf to real
people (interestingly, his Twitter self-description list ends with “mammal”,
While tempting to see the Ghomeshi narrative
through a “consent” lens, I wonder about how useful this is – though I’ll limit
comments to more common definitions of consent – not the BDSM kind, about which
I know nothing.
More than past generations, young people are
deficient in experience. They live and
breathe the limited, mediated modalities of image and text, whose effects are
not fully understood, but are already seen to be less conducive to both meaningful
physical intimacy and a solid sense of self.
there’s a decline in close, real-life friendships, increasing unfamiliarity
with the subtleties of face-to-face, non-verbal communication, and a massive
rise in the consumption of porn at younger ages.
disappearing (in the sense of “longing”, which as the word implies, involves a
certain remove - a distance in time or space – something the internet has
erased). Brains are being rewired in the context of shrinking experience and increasing
self-documentation and self-regard (“How do I look to myself?” “How do I look doing this?” - versus the
ability to be fully absorbed in an activity or another person that must
simultaneously seen as separate from self). While there are relevant power and
gender imbalance discussions to be had, this aspect – the shrinking experience,
the recording and posing/posting aspect, and the internalized
performer/audience aspect - is something that probably affects young men and
Whether or not men are more responsible for
the overarching social architecture that permits violence (yes, they are), the larger
effects on both men and women of these broader changes may be similar, and are,
for want of a better word, alienating. It
may make young men more likely to commit assaults and young women less likely
to come forward, as in the Ghomeshi case.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, didn’t know what was supposed
to happen”… were some of the reasons given by Ghomeshi’s victims for speaking only
now, when the media has given them “consent”.
Some women apparently left right after
Ghomeshi’s assault, some stayed around for a while to be polite. They wondered if this was normal. This suggests that as well as the
socio-political imbalance (feeling their story might not be given credence
should they tell it), they perhaps didn’t feel or trust their own experience to
begin with. It’s not clear that saying
“no” is so easy, or would have helped in any case, when dealing with a quick,
unforeseen cuff to the head.
“Consent” is perhaps too simple. It’s yes or no (0 or 1). But sex, like any intimate relationship,
involves a lot of grey (and not necessarily the “Fifty Shades” kind).
Focusing exclusively on textual/verbal
“consent” seems reflective of our shrinking ability to have, negotiate, or even
imagine rich, complex, fluid, physical, non-verbal/text experiences. So one wonders if the solution is really to
be found in enforcing only those narrow and explicit verbal contracts and
strictures, or whether it would be better to expand the questions, concerns,
and attention we give to this. Its
larger aspects are endemic and have no easy fix, like “Like”.
away count? Must a ‘no’ always be spoken? Does a look mean anything? Aren’t these also important
parts of communication that young people (glued as they are to their texts and phones)
need to develop if they’re to have full, healthy relationships? Isn’t non-verbal sensitivity part of what’s
needed? And quite apart from the limited
effectiveness of “consent” as a safeguard, how is love, or poetry about love
(by men or women) ever to be made out
of a constantly re-negotiated contract?
sense, consent just seems symptomatic of a bigger problem. At the start of this fiasco, it seemed
perfectly normal to discuss Ghomeshi’s presumed or proposed “consensual” BDSM
as OK. There’s something ironic and troubling
about the reliance on narrow contractual, verbal/textual tools to combat potential
abuses in what is already becoming an atrophied and diminished aspect of our
lives – something that was, and should be, the most profound, subtle and
meaningful expression of intimacy and connectedness.
Rob Ford, high culture and low
Does the Ghomeshi story share anything with
the populist narcissism/representation dynamic of the Ford phenomenon – a
particularly constructed public obsessed with a celebrity who purports to “look
like them” rather than “represent” them in that older, political sense of the
Sure, Ford is more demagoguery than
artfulness, more high culture than low, but it was interesting to see the two
stories playing out simultaneously the night of Toronto’s municipal election. Rob Ford, another distorted man-child, also
demonstrates a gift for narcissistic representation (often consisting of outright
misrepresentation), and also saw no reason why egregious acts in his ‘private
life’ should be seen as having anything to with his job. Ford too seemed perfectly
attuned to what his audience wants; they were more interested in being represented
in the sense of being ‘seen’ - than in the older kind of representation that
would produce housing, transportation or other services. (The Fords, promising
to champion social housing, had voted against improvements, and this mattered
not a bit to those smitten by their own image on Jimmy Kimmel or their
instagram accounts). Ford too, seemed
aided in his outsized ambition by his astonishingly flawed personal life and a similarly
remarkable ability to lie to both himself and the public. It was almost as though the more glaring his
personal vices, the larger his ambition became - a not dissimilar conflation of
ego, audience and representation as in l’affaire Ghomeshi.
All of this is our (sad) culture. That watching Ghomeshi’s Facebook ‘Likes’
decline became a “story” is symptomatic of it. There are deep questions about
changing forms of representation, technological self-absorption, violence and
consent, the cult of celebrity, and institutional responsibilities. I just wish people with more skills, insight and
knowledge than I would talk more about it.
Maybe we need a program like Q.
Note: Margaret Wente is weighing
in on Ghomeshi again, failing to mention she was dumped from the Q
media panel following her own scandal
– a plagiarism
story that also involved an institution protecting and enabling one
of it’s ‘celebrities’. Among other things, well before that
bigger story became news, she’d been on Q talking media 'ethics' while regurgitating
a column she wrote about the Occupy protests which featured an invented Occupy
protester, apparently hastily lifted from an unrelated website. One can debate the relative proportion of
narcissism, laziness and entitlement at work with Margaret Wente, but free of overweening
self-regard she is not.
As for Ghomeshi, I met him at the gala for
a cultural event he hosted in 2013 at The National Gallery, and for which I was
a juror. Since I left early, I don’t
know whether he picked up any young women at the after-party, but now I’ll
“Duplicitous”: “marked by deliberate deceptiveness in behavior or speech”. This is a
word Ms. Wente used to describe a BC doctor last
week - after misrepresenting her views.
“Ignorant”: “lacking knowledge or
awareness”, also “discourteous and rude”.
Neonictinoids have been in the news
lately. And given that The Globe and Mail is a ‘newspaper’,
one expects its columnists to be aware of what is reported. They are, as they say, entitled to their
opinions, but not their own facts.
while back Wente defended neonictinoids (increasingly
blamed for bee deaths) by citing anecdotes from her hobbyist beekeeper husband.
Why bother contacting scientists or relevant professional bodies? Unsurprisingly her latest effort also avoids
recent relevant science, and quotes another retired hobbyist who she perhaps
encountered at a country fair honey competition. Walter Zimmerman’s expert
publications consist of a cranky letter to the Hamilton Spectator.
The only other evidence Wente presents is a
link to a Canadian Senate committee (we know how our government values science). But even there, what she cherry picks is a
questionable representation of Guzman’s (now largely out of date) remarks. Guzman cites earlier research from his field
(he’s a specialist in Varroa mites, not neonictinoids), and even so, contrary
to what Wente writes, agrees that bee die off “in spring… seems to be neonicotinoid
Mites are pretty clearly not the
issue. One publication notes
that while pesticide
makers like Bayer and Syngenta prefer to
blame them for the bulk of bee deaths, the data doesn’t support this. “Varroa didn’t appear to
be a factor in the majority of cases of large-scale die-offs” and the first spike in bee deaths in Canada coincides
with the arrival of widespread use of neonics in 2007, whereas Varroa arrived
in the 1990s”.
hobby, it seems unlikely that Wente would be unaware of this and other new,
more relevant research published and much publicized, since Guzman’s
comments. But amazingly,
Wente fails to mention Dr. Nigel Raine, Research Chair at Guelph, an eminent scientist who actually studies neonictinoids and bees – even though his precise findings
Bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides become impaired and unable
to support their colonies, causing those colonies to slowly die, according to
the results of a study out of the University of Guelph. The study, which was published Tuesday in the
British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology, tracked the foraging
habits of 40 bumblebee colonies over four weeks. Researchers fitted the insects
with tiny microchips to track their movements via radio and compared the habits
of neonicotinoid-treated bees with untreated bees. The study found insects
exposed to neonicotinoids fared significantly worse than their untreated
counterparts…The bees treated with neonicotinoids were much less able to
collect pollen… “They actually became worse at collecting pollen, which is
exactly the opposite of what you would expect.”
And many other more recent reports,
including one by Eric Atkins in the Globe itself, describe the mounting scientific
evidence about neonics as “unequivocal”:
A group of 29 scientists from four continents found
unequivocal evidence from hundreds of published studies to claim that “neonics”
– the most widely used pesticides in the world – are having a dramatic impact
on the ecosystems that support food production and wildlife…
…The taskforce, set up four years ago, analysed 800
peer-reviewed scientific reports on neonicotinoids and fibronil, another type
of systemic pesticide, a group of pesticides that are absorbed by all parts of
a plant, including roots, leaves, flowers, fruit and even nectar and pollen”.
So the question is this: Is Ms. Wente spectacularly unaware of widely
reported research on this issue (in which case - is she lazy, irresponsible or
ignorant?), or is she being “duplicitous” - deliberately withholding from
readers the relevant reports, and citing as ‘experts’ her hubby and others on
the weekend hobby-farm fair honey circuit?
While there will certainly be no response, it should be a question of
credibility for the Globe and Mail.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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?
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
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.”
…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.
…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."
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