Coming to a human rights commission near you

REX MURPHY

Our esteemed human rights commissions are so busy these days, it worries me. The number of these gimlet-eyed scrutineers is, after all, finite.

Ezra Levant

There is, therefore, only a limited store of intellectual energy and moral fervour for them to call upon. In a brutish world, righteousness is not inexhaustible; virtue, like oil, has its peak moments and, with their current agenda, Canada's HRCs may run out of fuel.

Alberta's Human Rights Commission, one of the keenest, a noble avatar of those old censor boards that used to guard public libraries from “steamy” literature and “brazen” language, is trying to contain — I think that is the only proper verb here — Ezra Levant.

Mr. Levant has, as the jargon expresses it, “gone before” the commission to answer for the putative crime, offence, tastelessness of his (now defunct) magazine, the Western Standard's publication of the Mohammed cartoons. But even the sturdiest tribunal can summon forces too large for it to manage. And even the deepest probing commissioner, alert as a tuning-fork to the harmonies of political correctness, should have quailed before the thought of putting Ezra Levant under state-mandated interrogation.

His initial hearing is an Internet hit. He videotaped it, you see, and against the urgings of the commission placed in on the World Wide Web.

His performance, a marathon aria to free speech, looks to outpace even Jessica Alba beach footage as a web draw. More than 400,000 visitors have YouTubed Mr. Levant (A Daniel, I say, a Daniel come to judgment on Canadian free speech!). He is as a tidal wave breaking against a lone and solitary craft.

So Alberta's HRC is, to put it timidly, busy with Ezra Levant. And now, three others have had the courage, folly, or zeal, or, if you wish, the zealously courageous foolishness, to take on Maclean's magazine and Mark Steyn. The martyrs in question are, respectively, the Ontario, B.C. and federal HRCs. It's a busy time in the world of magazine censorship — and a bull market for the litigious and offended. John Donne comes to mind: “Lawyers find out still litigious men, whom quarrels move” and, if you are both, well, Canada is ripe with HRCs that want your business.


Mostly I fear, if the HRCs are tied up, Canadians will be reading, unguided, what they choose to read, deciding for themselves what they like and what they don't, will discard a book or pass it to a friend, like a column or curse one — lit only by the light of their own reason.


The question is, of course, does an HRC, or even a pack of them, really want to take on an institution as beloved as Maclean's? Next only to the Eaton's catalogue of sacred memory, Maclean's is a talisman of the Canadian way, it is Tim Hortons in print. For more than a century, Maclean's has stimulated minds, its back copies have intellectualized many a dental crisis; rolled up, it has been the fly swatter of choice for thousands. Approach Maclean's at your peril.

But, in addition, do they really want — after Ezra's example, mind you — to call Mark Steyn, the Victoria Falls (“The Smoke that Thunders”) of prolific columnists — into one of their style-less chambers to “explain himself?” If Mr. Levant contains multitudes, how to describe Mr. Steyn? He is a prodigy of immense resource and industry. Compared to him, Trollope was a slacker, Dickens a wastrel, and Proust a miniaturist. He inundates. Books, columns, blogs and obiter dicta in a thousand venues — if Mr. Steyn goes before one or all of these commissions, he will be firing off columns between questions. He'll write a column on a question while it is being asked. I urge our guardians to consider their own interests: Stay a while before essaying this profitless and useless venture.

A Maclean's/Steyn confrontation, in tandem with the prairie whirlwind we all know as Levant rampant — this is too much at one time for the meticulous and tidy tribunals that alone are our guardians against every stray thought that might fracture our fabulously delicate Canadian sensibilities. While they are preoccupied with Steyn-Levant, overwhelmed, exhausted and undone by Steyn-Levant, battered, borne-down on and befuddled by Steyn-Levant — who will watch out for us?

Who will there be to read before we read, and tell us what is proper for us? Who will be there to edit the editors, to copy check the copy checkers? Who will shield our vulnerable law-students, and who will tend to the commission's most industrious serial complainant. There is one person, so eggshell brittle that he has drummed up a fierce amount of business for the HRCs. Is so loyal a customer now to be ignored because the Steyn-Levant tsunami is about to rumble mercilessly on shore?

Mostly I fear, if the HRCs are tied up, Canadians will be reading, unguided, what they choose to read, deciding for themselves what they like and what they don't, will discard a book or pass it to a friend, like a column or curse one — lit only by the light of their own reason.

The horror! Before we know it, we'll have an unstoppable epidemic of free speech, free thought, and freedom of the press. And, surely, no one wants that. Otherwise, why would we have human rights commissions?


Rex Murphy on the Cartoon Controversy

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "Coming to a human rights commission near you." Globe & Mail (January 28, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2008 Rex Murphy



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