Protesters in Portland, Oregon, tore down a statue of George Washington the other day. One honoring John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was taken down by a vote of Victoria city council.
A growing anti-racism movement is about to force its owners to rename the Washington Redskins and perhaps the same fate will befall the Edmonton Eskimos.
Professors and academic administrators in both Canada and the United States have lost their jobs for the sin of “liking” the wrong tweets.
“Cancel culture” is now a thing. A big thing. So big that 150 internationally prominent writers, thinkers and public figures put their names on a letter published by Harper’s magazine this week denouncing what they call “ideological conformity,” a tendency to narrow debate on contentious issues by fear of being ostracized.
"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter states, citing "an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty."
The reaction was swift, with some critics attacking the letter’s signatories — who include Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell. Wynton Marsalis and Gloria Steinem— for their thin-skinned privilege.
The idea of canceling—and as some have labeled it, cancel culture —has taken hold in recent years due to conversations prompted by #MeToo and other movements that demand greater accountability from public figures.
Prominent victims have included actor Kevin Spacey (accused of sexual assault), singer R. Kelly (same), filmmaker Woody Allen (same) and TV star Roseanne Barr (racist rant).
Several people who signed the letter published in Harper’s have since withdrawn their names, once they saw who else had signed it—a reaction presumably triggered by the signature of Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling, who is under public attack for saying things that transgendered people feel were discriminatory.
So does “cancel culture” amount to mob mentality amplified by YouTube and Twitter, or is it a good thing, speaking truth to power?
Vox, the American online news and opinion site specializing in explanatory journalism, recently carried a long article on cancel culture. It quoted a corporate diversity and inclusion consultant saying that “mainstream internet activism is a lot of calling out and blaming and shaming. We have to get honest with ourselves about whether calling out and canceling gives us more than a short-term release of cathartic anger.”
In other words, pulling down statues and shaming people can divert attention from the hard work that needs to be done to eliminate systemic racism and sexual abuse, and it creates martyrs and false victims.
Which brings us to Margaret Wente.
The retired Globe and Mail columnist recently resigned her appointment to Massey College after a public backlash and petition protested her invitation to join the Quadrangle Society, a group of prominent scholars and public figures invited to nosh at the cloistered graduate student residence affiliated with the University of Toronto. Critics accused her of plagiarism and writings that some regard as anti-feminist and racist.
Wente resigned her post in a letter that called accusations against her “false and outrageous” and stating “that her record speaks for itself.”
Not content to let that letter speak for itself, Wente has since gone online with a long and tedious rant that disturbingly makes her sound like another person of privilege who’s intent on playing the victim. (Full disclosure: I was a junior fellow at Massey College in 1976-77 and I signed the petition).
Accusing the distinguished academics who selected her of cowardice, Wente writes “I learned a lot. I learned how easily an institution will cave to a mob. I learned how quickly the authorities will run for cover, notwithstanding the lip service they may pay to principles of free speech.”
On the face of it, she seems to be articulating the same objection to shaming that signatories to the Harper’s letter did. But a deeper examination reveals her to be self-serving and alarmingly careless with her facts.
The first thing to know is that her article appears on Quillette, an online site whose motto is “We respect ideas, even dangerous ones.” The Canadian editor of the site is Jonathan Kay, one of Wente’s friends.
Wente describes her qualifications for the Massey appointment in the most flattering of terms—"several decades served as a senior editor, and then an opinion columnist, for the Globe and Mail, the closest thing Canada has to a New York Times.”
She admits that “some of my opinions were controversial—or at least what passes for controversial in this country. My specialty was deflating Canada’s numerous liberal pieties. I did it rather well. Among Canada’s liberal elites, who take their pieties very seriously, I was an abomination.”
Only then does she address the nub of the matter. Here is what she says in her own defence: “In 2012, I was accused of plagiarism. While my newspaper found me guilty of nothing more than carelessness, there is no question that I screwed up by failing to attribute material to other sources. My critics gleefully seized on the incident, and I’ve been trolled on social media ever since. The issue also became a convenient rallying point for the mob that assembled once my appointment to the Quadrangle Society was announced.”
Hold on a minute. It’s true she was accused of plagiarism in 2012, but she doesn’t mention that she was accused of it again in 2016, and the Globe was forced to apologize for her columns, which it said “failed to properly attribute prose.”
The paper’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, wrote that Wente “"deeply regrets these mistakes"—something that her latest rantings somehow fail to affirm. She also does not mention that, when her 2012 transgression was drawn to her paper’s attention by Ottawa blogger Carol Waino, her editor at the time investigated, called her performance “unacceptable,” and disciplined her.
Although the Globe never called her mistakes plagiarism, they certainly transgressed the paper’s written policy on plagiarism. According to The Globe's Editorial Code of Conduct: “It is unacceptable to represent another person’s work as your own. Excerpts from other people’s prose must be attributed so as to avoid even a suspicion of copying. Although it is sometimes reasonable to adopt a few words without attribution (in a technical definition, for example), careful judgment is required. When in doubt, consult a senior editor. Any extensive unacknowledged use of another’s words, structure or ideas may constitute plagiarism.”
So it’s quite clear to me that Wente is a serial plagiarist, is unrepentant about it and likes to tailor the facts in her own favour.
Massey College Principal Nathalie Des Rosiers has said the purpose of the Quadrangle Society is to allow distinguished outsiders contribute to the intellectual climate of the college, but Wente seems to have a different view of that, so perhaps it’s a good thing Massey’s graduate students won’t be exposed to her. In her Quillette article, Wente says that she said yes to the appointment “because I have several friends who belong to the Quadrangle Society, and I thought this would be a fun excuse for us to have lunch together in Massey’s great hall.”
That said, I credit Wente for getting one thing right. Massey College needs to take a good hard look at itself.
She says: “In this climate, every fusty institution is just one trivial scandal away from public-relations crisis and knives-out infighting, as all concerned flail about in a bid to prove their moral purity. I’ll survive. I’m not sure Massey will.”