Friday, March 26, 2010

A tangled web...

I really only know one thing about the Ann Coulter speech that turned into a debacle in Ottawa: I don't care what Ms. Coulter thinks of me or my country. For that matter, I don't pretend to know what she thinks at all. As many people before me have pointed out, people like Coulter and Limbaugh make their money as entertainers. Making extreme statements to an aging audience may bring in the money, but it shows a basic lack of seriousness about actually getting candidates who might support their positions elected, or getting an actual political platform enacted.

In her current Canadian speaking tour, Coulter advised a Muslim student who didn't have a flying carpet to ride a camel. Have the conservatives who sponsored her tour looked at Canadian demographic trends lately? An outrageous statement makes good copy; Ms. Coulter may sell some books because of it. But does anyone think telling a Muslim student to ride a camel in the name of conservatism will help Stephen Harper get a majority in Parliament?

Serious political commentator or entertainer, public intellectual or charlatan, Ms. Coulter presumably deserves the same right we all have: to speak freely. So did the university deny her that right? Did the students and others who showed up to protest?

Let's start with the university. The Ottawa University provost, Fran├žoise Houle, wrote Ms. Coulter a note asking her to respect Canada's hate laws. Ian Hunter described this as telling her not to "say anything too controversial lest delicate Canadian sensibilities be ruffled." But Ms. Coulter has tacked much closer to the line separating comment from incitement than this suggests. We do not always remember that her suggestion that Americans invade Muslim countries, and forcibly convert the people concerned the editorial staff of the National Review; not a terribly liberal or delicate bunch.

So did the protesters violate her rights? Not unless they threatened her. Opinions vary about whether the crowd threatened her. Someone did pull a fire alarm. Some students have the bad habit of using this illegal trick to thwart an unwanted event. But without knowing who pulled the alarm and why, we can only speculate. The accounts do not seem to differ much on three important points:
  1. if police arrested anyone at the scene, nobody seems to have reported it
  2. organizational issues led to chaos at the scene
  3. Ms. Coulter and/or her handlers called off her speech themselves.
In a final twist, conservatives who have rejected the very notion of human rights commissions now plan to make a complaint to the human rights commission that the university and the protesters violated Ms. Coulter's rights. It appears that some conservatives in this country have had their sense of irony removed.

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