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Oh, shut up

The epithet in my headline (which my mother wouldn’t let me say thus severely curtailing my freedom of speech) is not, surprisingly enough, about Ann Coulter and her recent Canadian adventure. On the contrary, it’s directed at the people who can’t stop carping and fussing about “freedom of speech” and how poor Ann, with her racist, homophobic, vitriol-laced material was “not allowed” to deliver her expected diatribe at the University of Ottawa. (As it turned out, it was she and her people who decided to cancel in Ottawa and her freedom of speech was on ostentious display the next day in Calgary — but we’ll leave it at that.)

But let’s be clear. This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Ann Coulter is perfectly free to stand on any street corner or in any park in Canada and say pretty much whatever she wants to say. Or she could hire a hall or start a newspaper. She could become a pamphleteer or a soapbox orator.

The real problem is that she was invited – and paid – to give a speech at a university which would validate the views of those in her audience who were looking for racist, homophobic, vitriol-laced material. Listening to her would give them permission to leave her event and go back out into the university community, feeling that their noxious views are acceptable. To give a different context to the question that’s been asked this week: Is this the role we want our universities to play? To sanction an event and a speaker that places many of their students in a threatening and dangerous position?

Ann Coulter’s so-called “ideas” should not be ignored, as some people suggest, and they should not be debated, which gives them legitimacy. They — and she — should be scorned and disdained and she should be held up to public scrutiny and called what she is: a vacuous bully, an ignorant boor, a nasty piece of work.

The suggestion that she should be tolerated — or ignored — reminds me of when American radio host Howard Stern was trying to gain a foothold in Canada. People who supported his being licenced by the CRTC kept saying, “If you don’t like him, just turn your radio off,” which, pardon me, is a really stupid thing to say as I’m very unlikely to have Howard Stern on my radio anyway.

But Howard is not playing to me; he’s playing to many of the same people that Ann Coulter plays to except Howard leans a little more heavily toward ferocious misogny and offers great aid and comfort — and advice — to men who abuse women. What good is it going to do if I turn my radio off? And likewise, what good will it do if I ignore Ann Coulter? I’m not their intended audience.

Let’s now hope she’s returned to the land of the free where her commentary is much more mainstream — although I’m told she’s going out of fashion even there — and get back to paying attention to those in our own country who may speak more quietly but who carry just as big a stick and whose aspirations are not so different from the mouthy Ms Coulter.


Today is International Women’s Day, always a day that gives us plenty to think about. I admire optimists and people who make a point of thinking positively but it doesn’t seem that I was ever destined to fit either of those descriptions for reasons that will become clear.

I’m republishing here a column I wrote in early 1991. Don’t let my playful tone fool you. There was a war on then too, the Gulf War, entered into by the first George Bush. A few days before I wrote this column, I had participated in a teach-in about the war at Mount Saint Vincent University. My feminist presentation was about the sexual and erotic imagery used to describe war. The proceedings at the teach-in were recorded and later that same day, part of what I’d said was played on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, “for the record.”

There was a lot of response to that radio spot and one person’s response led to this column.

February 17, 1991

Well, ladies, I had just popped an apple pie into the oven and was getting the ironing done when I decided that what I really should do is go out and get my hair done and then go shopping for something nice for myself. A new hat maybe … or some perfume … or maybe a nice frilly feminine dress. That should cheer me up, shouldn’t it?

You see, girls, I had just opened my mail and had a letter from a fellow in Ontario who had heard some remarks I made on the radio about the sexual imagery of war. From his letter, I discovered that I’m really on the wrong track and I should change my way of thinking or just shut up. I should lighten up, give it a break, get a life. I should try just being a normal woman and I might discover that I like it.

This particular letter, interestingly enough, kept calling my views “ubsurd” (sic). He went on to say that they’re half-baked, pop-feminism. He said he has a feminist friend who also heard me and she said it’s terrible to hear someone who’s supposed to be on your side and you wish she was on the other side.

Each to his own opinion, of course, but in the last few months I’ve been called ridiculous and vindictive, mean-minded, sour and hostile, and accused of spewing vitriol and being anti-male. Goodness, girls. Can this really be me?

  • violence against women: (more than 100 Canadian women will be killed by their life partners this year; one in four women and girls will be sexually assaulted; one in 10 women is regularly beaten by her partner; popular culture — videos, movies, books — still portrays violence against women as a form of eroticism.)
  • sexual harassment: (even as I write this and as you read it, some woman somewhere is being denied a raise or a promotion because she refuses to sleep with the boss; or a female student is being offered a chance to pull an A+ on her toughest course if she favours the professor — if you know what I mean; or a woman working in a roomful of men is being subjected to sexual jokes, often having to do with her own body.)
  • inequality in the workplace: (women still make only 69 cents for every dollar that men make; in the workplace, 41 per cent of women earn more than $27,500 per year compared to 84 per cent of men; 21 per cent of aboriginal women earn more than $27,500, compared to 81 per cent of native men; 28 per cent of women in visible minorities earn more than $27,500 compared to 75 per cent of visible minority men.)
  • the feminization of poverty: (the number of women living in poverty increased by 110 per cent between 1971 and 1986, while the number of men living in poverty has increased over the same period by 24 per cent.)
  • child care: (the percentage of women with children who work outside the home reached 77.4 per cent in 1989 but the number of publicly-funded child care spaces has not increased — in 1989, there were 450,000 more pre-school children with mothers in the labour force for whom no child care was available than there were in 1979.)
  • pornography: (how come every time I whisper the word “pornography”, there’s someone to yell “freedom of expression” and I’m accused of advocating censorship — when I’m not? Then, how come I could to listen to 50 minutes of a CBC Radio Maritime Noon phone-in asking the question “should news from the war be censored?” and 99 per cent of the callers (all callers except one were men) intoned their support for censorship because of the “special circumstances” of war and no one says boo?)
  • Well ladies, you just know I could go on and on but I think I should defrost the fridge, mop the floor and make a quilt. I’m trying to be a normal woman.

    I just want to add, however, that I don’t invent the situations and statistics I’ve cited above and I’d like to ask why the people who are the perpetrators of those situations and responsible for those statistics are never called anti-female? Ubsurd, isn’t it?

    Here is an interesting version of Bread and Roses, sung by the Boston Workmen’s Circle (A Besere Velt — A Better World) Yiddish Chorus. Bread and Roses is woven together with an anthem dedicated to the fighters in the Spanish Civil War. But also, just before the three-minute mark, they sing, “We are marching for health care, universal and affordable …” to great applause from their audience.

    Happy International Women’s Day, 2010. There’s still much to be done.

    February is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month. Either one is an appropriate time to look back at the life of Dr. Carrie Best.

    In the history of Nova Scotia — home of the largest indigenous Black community in Canada — Dr. Best was well-known and admired for her many years of work on behalf of her people. She died in 2001 but not before she had made her mark and helped to dispel some of the egregious racism that existed throughout her life.

    Dr. Carrie Best

    She was born in New Glasgow in 1903. In 1946, she founded The Clarion, the first newspaper for Blacks in Nova Scotia. She wrote for newspapers and magazines and was a weekly columnist with The Pictou Advocate. She was the author of an autobiography, That Lonesome Road (which is also a social history of Nova Scotian Blacks.)

    She was well-known across the country as an equal rights activist and was a founding member of the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women of Nova Scotia, an organization which works with women and young people to promote a sense of identity and pride of race, integrity and self-discipline “and to lift others, as we ourselves climb toward dignity and self-respect.”

    Her last doctorate was awarded in 1992 by the University of King’s College in Halifax. In 1970, she was awarded the Lloyd MacInnis Memorial Award for her work in social justice. In 1973, she received the first annual award of the National Black Coalition of Canada. In 1974, she was appointed to the Order of Canada. In 1975, she was granted the degree Doctor of Laws by St. Francis Xavier University.

    In December of 1991, she received an award for outstanding contributions to human rights on the anniversary of the day the United Nations ratified the Declaration of Human Rights.

    I interviewed her a few years before her death at her home in New Glasgow. She scoffed at my tape recorder and refused to let me turn it on, telling me she didn’t want to talk into “that thing.” I returned to the time-honoured tradition of taking notes. Her words are in italics. My occasional comments are not.

    The ‘religious hobo’

    Dr. Best is in perpetual motion, rummaging in her well-packed briefcase for a pertinent document, punctuating her remarks with a gentle jab to her interviewer’s shoulder or a soothing pat to the knee. Her energy and vitality are infectious. She often speaks with tongue in cheek.

    * * *

    I was invited to give the convocation address to the Atlantic School of Theology. I nearly dropped dead when they asked me! They can’t mean me, I said. Do they know I don’t go to church? Well, I slept on it. I do live close to God — I’m a born-again Christian — but I consider Christianity and “churchianity” two different things.

    In the end, I accepted. I described my religious background to them and told them I was a “religious hobo.” When I was born, my parents were Salvationists and that’s how I was registered at birth. When I was a young child, they left the Army because the first “black church” had been established in Pictou County. That was Baptist.

    When I grew up, I had the bad taste to marry an Anglican but he was good enough to go to the Baptist church with me. After a time though, he missed the Anglican way of worshipping so … he had accommodated me and I thought it was my turn to accommodate him so I went to the Anglican Church with him. But I missed the Baptists. The Baptists clap and laugh and sing and really know how to praise the Lord. So I went back to the Baptists. You can see I’m a religious hobo.

    As I got older, I met so many wonderful people of all religions. I began to accept people for what they are — colour and creed don’t matter. I believe that all roads that lead to God are good.

    The root of my faith is Mother Earth. I think of all the little creeds as just different ways of interpreting God.

    So that’s what I told the graduates of the Atlantic School of Theology!

    * * *

    That Lonesome Road is dedicated to her mother. On the dedication page, she wrote, “Society Said: You are an inferior being,/born to be a hewer of wood/ and a drawer of water/ because you are Black…. My Mother Said: You are a person, separate/ and apart from all other/ persons on earth. The pathway/to your destiny is hidden…/ you alone must find it./ …And then she said…/ Take the first turn right,/ and go straight ahead…”

    * * *

    It’s very painful to talk about some of the practices of the past. When I was growing up in New Glasgow, you couldn’t eat in a restaurant. You couldn’t get your hair cut. I went to jail. My son and I were at the movies; we sat downstairs, we went to the movies three times a week and we’d sat in the same seats for years. Then one day, the usher came to me and said, “You can’t sit here. You have to go into the balcony.” I refused. They called the police; they had to drag me out of there. I was in jail for an hour. I was charged with causing a disturbance.

    But at all times of my life, I’ve been a happy person. When I was young, I think we might have been broke but we were never poor. I was personally just as happy no matter what we had. My personal happiness had nothing to do with racial discrimination.

    I confront bigotry face on. If I hear — and this has happened — that someone has called me “nigger,” I go right to that person. I look him right in the eye and I say, “did you call me ‘nigger’? Now I’ve heard you did and all I want from you is to tell me if it’s true. If you say it isn’t, I’ll believe you. We’ll go together to the person who told me and you will tell him it isn’t true.” You could always tell if it was true or not.

    I’m not a nigger. I’m as good as anyone and better than most. I love everyone who’s worthy of my love — but I won’t sit back and take that kind of bigotry.

    * * *

    Her memory seems unlimited. She quotes long stanzas of poetry, long passages from books, most of which were learned many years ago. She considers poetry to be part of her spiritual nature and part of her search for identity.

    “The long hours spent in reading poetry,” she wrote in That Lonesome Road, “and the hundreds of poems memorized during my early childhood, my learning years, my yearning years and even now in later life, are fragrant memories of my journey in Search of an Identity. The irresistible habit of committing poems to memory still persists, and like deposits in a savings account, can be drawn out at will. The fund is never exhausted, for the interest grows both on deposit and withdrawal and is compounded daily.

    “Black history was virtually non-existent in Nova Scotia during my learning years … I remember when I received my cherished volume of the Poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I was ten years old … I found to my utter astonishment and delight that I could read the Dunbar poems which were written in the Negro dialect as easily as those he had written in classic English. These gave me my first sense of Black Identity.”

    * * *

    Things have changed — but not enough. The white race has got to start learning from those they feel superior to. The Blacks have to take pride in who they are. When Frederick Douglass was a young slave, the white mistress said, “He’s a bright boy. I’d like to teach him to read.” The slave master said, “When you educate a Negro, you unsuit him for a slave.”

    Education is very important — more important than ever. We have to start teaching our children ourselves — in “kitchen schools.” We have to get funding from Black churches, Black organizations, and take the time to teach the children where they come from, how far they can go.

    Being old now is not a disadvantage to me in all my projects. It’s a blessing. God gave me this extra time to accomplish whatever I can, to meet wonderful people of all races. I’m so thankful.

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