The Mace and the Gun
It was, all things considered, a tragic but very Canadian affair. Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was killed at the National War Memorial, the cenotaph erected to commemorate the Great War, during which Canada came to maturity as a nation on the battlefields of France. King George VI dedicated the memorial himself on the historic 1939 visit he and Queen Elizabeth (latterly the Queen Mother) made across the land just months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The cenotaph is a place of modest remembrance and continuity. There are no memorials to other wars; the memorial's purpose has expanded over time. It is a place of great continuity. I was there in 1989 when the Queen Mother returned for the golden jubilee of that 1939 visit and laid a wreath where she had stood alongside her husband 50 years previous.
Cirillo's killer, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, then ran across Parliament Hill with a hunting rifle. Not a handgun, not an automatic weapon, but the sort of hunting rifle owned by thousands of Canadian farmers and hunters. It was quite unequal to the task of causing great carnage, and within seconds of bursting through the Centre Block rotunda—the heart of the Parliament Buildings—he was shot multiple times. By the time the Sergeant-at-Arms, having heard the commotion outside his door, arrived on the scene, Bibeau had sought cover steps away from the doors to the library, the same massive doors that had preserved the library during the 1916 fire that destroyed the Centre Block. The doors, witnesses once to fire, were now witnesses to blood. Kevin Vickers shot Bibeau and then went to the government caucus room down the hall to inform them that the gunman was dead.
As far as terror attacks go, it was modest. There was much commentary about Parliamentary security, but the fact remains that Bibeau was dead within perhaps 90 seconds of entering the Parliament Buildings. Of course, it could have been much worse, but it wasn't. One on-duty soldier was killed, not dozens of civilians going about their daily affairs. Canada did not, despite hyperventilating comments to the contrary, lose its innocence or stand alongside New York's 9/11 or London 7/7. Thirty years ago, a gunman entered the chamber of the Quebec National Assembly, to be disarmed there with conversation and cigarettes by the Sergeant-at-Arms on duty then, too. Twenty-five years ago, Marc Lépine massacred female engineering students at École Polytechique in Montreal, a far more lethal act, which also invited questions about both political ideology and mental illness.
What distinguished October 22, 2014, was the rich symbolism that Bibeau was after in the context of Canada fighting its second consecutive war against Islamic jihadism. It was thus supremely fitting that he was stopped by a figure both symbolic and real, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, the mace-bearer who marches before the Speaker in the opening ceremony of the Commons. Kevin Vickers is also the head of security on the Hill, which is why, in addition to carrying a mace, he carries a pistol.
It is irreverent to imagine that he might have bludgeoned Bibeau into submission with the mace itself, but that was symbolically the case. The mace represents the authority of the Chamber, conferred by the Crown (which is why it is draped in the presence of the sovereign herself). It is a symbol of Parliament as a whole. In the person of its mace-bearer, then, Parliament offered its own response to the attack on its peaceable assembly.
The response of the Canadian people was edifying, avoiding the melodrama that often accompanies moments of national trauma, real or manufactured. Two days after the shooting, I was on my way to Ottawa from Wolfe Island, knowing that in the opposite direction the hearse carrying the body of Corporal Cirillo would pass. At Brockville, I stopped and joined hundreds of others on the off-ramp, the overpass and the shoulder of the 401. A few minutes later, the hearse passed, accompanied by a modest escort. Respects were paid, applause was restrained, and the crowd dispersed in a spirit of recollection. It was a sober moment of national response, adding a popular touch to the quiet strength of Kevin Vickers in the House of Commons the day before, receiving the thanks of the massed ranks of MPs.
The words of our anthem were applied freely to Corporal Cirillo in those first days: "standing on guard for thee" at the memorial, at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. True enough, for he was on guard, keeping watch. So, too, were others that day, on guard. The country, too, was on guard, maintaining Canada's dignity on a difficult day. In French, the anthem speaks of the arm that carries the sword that also knows how to carry the cross. On a very Canadian day of terror, the arm that carried the mace also knew how to carry the pistol. And the land was kept, if a little less glorious on that day, still free.
Sexual Assault: Canadian Content Version
The news about Jian Ghomeshi was news to me, first, because it was about Jian Ghomeshi. I had heard the name and knew that he was an actor or TV star or musician or celebrity of some sort. I didn't know that he was a radio host in the CBC world, a star of galactic proportions. Of course, that is a relatively small universe. Aside from Rex Murphy, I never listen to CBC Radio, even on the few occasions when I have been interviewed on it. I have no reason not to; it's just that I prefer to listen to country music in the car, which is the only place I ever listen to the radio. The world of CBC Radio is entirely alien to me. The story of Jian Ghomeshi confirmed that it is more alien than I had imagined.
How alien became apparent immediately. He launched his pre-emptive strike against the CBC in a long Facebook post explaining that he had been unjustly fired for his private, consensual sexual behaviour. The next day, my editor at the National Post, Jonathan Kay, wrote about how fabulous Q was. I am in touch with my editor every week, and follow his writing, but had no idea he was a regular guest on Q. That sort of thing is a big deal in the world of Jonathan Kay, who is now editor of The Walrus magazine. Yet Kay's kind words about Ghomeshi's work did strike me as rather odd, given that the news occasioning the comment was precisely Ghomeshi's self-revelations about "all kinds of unsavoury aggressive acts in the bedroom."
Ghomeshi wrote that he was fired because he liked to engage in "rough sex (forms of BDSM)." It is instructive that in his world one does not have to explain what BDSM stands for, which is bondage, discipline/domination, sadism/submission and masochism. It was all consensual, of course, and nobody's business. But when an ex-girlfriend "began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization," telling people that she was a "victim of abusive relations" with Ghomeshi, he informed his CBC superiors, lest he be made a victim of people whose outdated mores left no room for a little bit of bondage between friends. He showed the CBC evidence of how consensual all the unsavoury practices were. The CBC, however, claims to have viewed "graphic evidence that Ghomeshi had caused physical injury to a woman," according to the Globe and Mail. Apparently, his bosses found that watching Ghomeshi knocking women about with his fists—whether consensually, as it was incredibly asserted, or not—was altogether too much and they showed him the door.
Ghomeshi's pre-emptive disclosure was overtaken quickly by public allegations and anonymous reports from many women that the slapping, punching, choking and throwing was not entirely consensual. In addition, multiple voices revealed that Ghomeshi was believed by many to be a world-class pervert, constantly harassing women at work. At press time, the Toronto police had opened a sexual-assault investigation after three women came forward and made allegations against him.
Let's get back to the day after Ghomeshi told Canadians that he enjoyed sadistic sexual practices. Stipulate that it was all consensual and the women enjoyed being humiliated and assaulted. Isn't the declaration of a delight in sadistic bondage of women an odd occasion for others to respond by saying how fabulous Ghomeshi is as a radio host? Who lives in such a world?
Well, eminently reasonable people such as Jonathan Kay, who confessed in an October 27 column that he had "no idea whether ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi is a sexual predator, as alleged—or merely a lothario with odd moves in the bedroom, as his many defenders claim." Those defenders included left-wing feminist stalwarts such as Judy Rebick and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. They walked back their Ghomeshi-gushing quickly enough when other allegations surfaced. Yet the question on that first day was not whether Ghomeshi was guilty of sexual assault—to which he is entitled to the presumption of criminal innocence—but what one thought of his admission that he liked engaging in sex that degraded women. Did it not speak of his character? Were these "odd moves" something to be encouraged? Is sexual sadism just another horizon-broadening experience to be expected of such a broad-minded interviewer?
I do not suggest that Kay or Rebick or May take sadism lightly, but I marvel that there is a world in which the assertion that one does such things is greeted not with horrified astonishment but rather tacit agreement that sexual preferences are a human right, as Ghomeshi asserted in his defence—as if somewhere down in section 87(q) of the Charter the right to tie up a woman for sexual pleasure was enumerated. Kay sketched out the world Ghomeshi reigned over, comporting himself like a duke might have done back in the days when the lord of the manor helped himself to the ladies: "…live shows, the Giller hosting, and the gadabout work at the Toronto International Film Festival. When the A-list wore a tux, Ghomeshi was there."
I suspect that this is the cultural significance of the whole sordid mess. It was about the A-list and the A-list's favourite parties. If news of sexual abuse or assault arises on campus or in sports or the military or the Church, the Q-listening A-list knows what is to be said. The "rape culture" is denounced, and wise heads nod about how such things occur because that particular culture is rotten with misogyny, secrecy, entitlement and privilege. What then to say when the culture that is rotten is that of the A-list itself ? Carl Wilson, a fully paid-up member of the Ghomeshi arts and culture world, attempted to explain in the National Post on November 4, 2014, why he and his friends had nothing to say when they all knew something was wrong.
"As a critic and author, you have been a guest on Q a half-dozen times…. You enjoy doing it, and you value it professionally: It is by far the highest-profile Canadian broadcast venue that consistently engages with the kind of work you do…. You are well-aware that to many [women], Jian is a creep. You run into him constantly around town. Awards ceremonies, panel discussions, fashion events, charitable and cultural galas…. He might as well have been appointed Host Laureate by the Canadian Parliament. It is a function of Canada's small population… that there is usually just one such inescapable person in this country. For the past five years, it has been Jian."
Not exactly. Ghomeshi was only inescapable for a certain rather privileged, wealthy slice of Canada. I managed to escape him entirely. Wilson and his friends did not seek to escape Ghomeshi but sought to bask in whatever reflected adulation they could soak up. If the price of that was ignoring that he was the unofficial lecher laureate of Canada, well, then it was a small price to ask others to pay. Those who had to pay were not the A-listers.
"The worst thing, you realize, is that you tended to look down on Jian's conquests," writes Wilson. "As if anyone who fell for his come-ons was a fool, instead of merely lacking the advantage of inside knowledge."
That's when the Ghomeshi story turned. When respectable, A-list Q-listening women told their stories. These were not college interns who didn't matter to the A-listers, but others like them. So now Wilson and his ilk feel guilty. Their guilt will drive the Ghomeshi story for months as the same question dominates the glittering gatherings that used to feature Ghomeshi: How could this happen to us when it is our job to denounce it when it happens to others?
"In Jian's case, you didn't know, of course," writes Wilson. "But you knew. There was doublethink, a split consciousness. ‘Everybody' knew, so perhaps you had no special burden, not compared to his employers, for example. A former Q staffer says that after she complained, a CBC executive reminded her to be ‘malleable.' There remain a lot of questions about what happened there. But maybe you, too, downplayed the problem because facing it might mean making a sacrifice: You liked doing that show. Just as the CBC and the U.S. stations liked having that show…."
Three years ago, the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal exploded at Penn State, costing the greatest college football coach of all time, Joe Paterno, his job. At the time, Jonathan Kay was quick to diagnose the problem as broader than just a wicked man and a negligent supervisor, but something of a broad cultural problem. In the November 10, 2011, edition of the National Post, Kay wrote:
"The world of elite American college football couldn't be more culturally removed from the salons and conference rooms of Paris. Yet the two worlds are identical in the only way that matters to victims of sexual violence: Paterno bought into the idea that he and the people around him played by different moral rules. If he didn't, he would have done what any ordinary human being reading these words would have done when presented with eyewitness allegations that a 10-year-old boy had been anally raped on Penn State's athletic premises by a former coach and colleague—[he would have] called the police. Instead, he kept the news within the network of his own palace guards and gatekeepers, who then did likewise. Dialing 911 is for ordinary people."
Now there is another culture of the blind eye to add to the lis—the culture of Q, its host, its producers, its regular guests, its fawning admirers and its celebrity hangers-on. The point is not that Kay and his fellow Q admirers are venal, but that the same alpha-monarch dynamics are alive and well in the world of self-congratulatory radio.
Some months after the case at Penn State, I wrote in these pages an essay on why various institutions —the most common of which is the family, where most sexual abuse takes place—look the other way on sexual aggression, abuse and assault. The answer, I suggested, is that confronting that evil means that the little world in which it took place will be entirely disrupted. A family is torn apart, a radio show is derailed. The price of action seems too high, especially when the victims are hidden and their voice is neither heard nor heeded.
In a certain influential and powerful section of Canadian life, Jian Ghomeshi was the one who got to decide who else should be influential and powerful. So nobody did anything about what everybody knew. Now an accounting must be made about those who, not to put too fine a point on it, have long regarded themselves as our cultural betters, especially when it comes to fashionably progressive views about sex. They have discovered the ugliness of Jian Ghomeshi and a few ugly truths about themselves. Whether that is discussed on CBC Radio remains to be heard. But I won't be listening. I never did.
Sex and CBC Radio
On occasion, I have been asked to participate in CBC Radio programs. Last spring, Sunday Edition, hosted by Michael Enright, had an extended panel discussion on religion in public life called "The Public God." It was a typical CBC affair, a panel of various representative voices. The two Muslims were both in favour of same-sex marriage. It's at least an alternative world, if not an altogether alien one, in which it is difficult to find representatives of that rather large slice of global Islam that is more restrained in its enthusiasm for gay marriage.
The show was pleasant enough and covered the usual ground, until Enright decided to address, rather more bluntly than usual, his fundamental concern about faith in our common life.
"I want to ask, because I really am in the dark on this: What is the preoccupation, the ongoing obsession, of what people do with their genitalia? It seems to be the operating system of religion. Why is that?"
I am long-since accustomed to the insistence of interlocutors that religion is obsessed with sex when the only questions we are asked in such public forums are about sex.
"The question of who is fascinated by genitalia is one you put to this panel," I replied. "You asked why we are so hung up on it. I do radio programs and that's the question that I am asked; I don't come desiring to discuss that. The ‘hot-button issues' you ask about are never whether Jesus is truly God and truly man. It's never that. There are 10 commandments for Jews and Christians, and we get around to sexual morality at number six. Many of these socalled Church-State or religion-public life questions are better understood as a category of sexual politics that operates by special rules."
The panel then moved on to other matters less urgent to Enright than our obsession with genitalia, but it was a clarifying moment. There is no objection to religious voices advocating for the poor, speaking out for peace or calling attention to the environment. Indeed, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is on track to become an Anglican minister, and it is not thought that she is out to impose her religious views on a secular public square, even though her environmentalism is certainly a product of her Christian faith.
There is a special category, though, for sexual politics where different rules apply. While the progressive side usually advocates for greater dialogue and discussion as essential for good democratic hygiene on matters relating to, inter alia, abortion and same-sex marriage, debate is not welcome. As Jason Kenney notes in this very issue, matters have now reached a point where Justin Trudeau has elevated sexual rights over freedom of conscience or freedom of speech.
The peculiar rules of sexual politics mean that the role of faith in our common life is reduced to teachings on sexual morality. The same voices that accuse religion of being obsessed with sex refuse to pay attention to people of faith except on matters of sex. At the risk of descending to Enright's rather graphic characterization of religion's so-called obsession, one could have challenged him that his feature panel discussion might well have been called "The Pubic God" rather than "The Public God." In Enright's world, much of public life is viewed through the prism of sexual politics.