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A dangerous farce: Thoughts on the hijacking of Canada Reads

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This morning on Vancouver's W2 Morning show on Coop Radio (102.7FM) I shared some of my reaction to a developing story on this year's edition of Canada Reads. These are, roughly and quickly written up, some of the arguments I made on the radio today. I would like to hear other thoughts. Both the CBC and Canadian literature should be defended, nurtured and debated passionately.

Lately, it has become all too common to hear loud, over-the-top right-wing voices in our media, even on our public broadcaster, the CBC. Some examples spring easily to mind: Don Cherry attacking "pinko" cyclists at the inauguration of Rob Ford; Rex Murphy denying climate change and/or mocking Desmond Tutu for raising its devastatingly real impact on Africa; and, of course, the increasingly omnipresent Kevin O'Leary glorifying selfishness and greed while denying the reality that his market fundamentalism has driven the world into financial crisis.

You might call it the creeping Fox News-ification of Canada, and it no doubt is a big contributing factor to the ongoing Harperization of our country.

It's all enough to make you want to turn off the conservative shock jocks and enjoy a good Canadian book. Alas, nothing is sacred. Now even Canada Reads, the CBC's annual ode to CanLit, has been infected by the dangerous spread of idiocracy.

Canada Reads is a literary contest crossed with reality TV. This year's edition, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, includes among its five finalists Vancouver's own Carmen Aguirre, a playwright, actress and author of Something Fierce, the memoir of a revolutionary daughter. It tells her story of a youth spent amidst the tumult of underground and exile political work aiding the struggle against the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile.

Matched up with the five books are five "celebrity" panellists, each advocating for one of the titles. On Monday's opening episode panellist Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec lawyer, launched this verbal attack: "Carmen Aguirre is a bloody terrorist. How we let her into Canada, I don't understand." The appropriately named Goldwater also insulted another finalist, Prisoner of Tehran author Marina Nemat, saying her story was "not true."

Come again? Had a U.S. Republican presidential candidate somehow snuck onto a CBC show about books?

The attack on the integrity and honesty of torture survivor Nemat is disgusting. So is the attack on Aguirre, and it carries other serious and alarming aspects that should not be dismissed as mere "controversy" or soap opera/reality TV drama. 

First of all, the smears against Aguirre are potentially threatening not only to her reputation but to her personal safety and security. In this day and age, "terrorist" is pretty much the worst and most serious thing you can call anyone.

Furthermore, the insult is not just against Aguirre, but can be viewed as a slap in the face to the entire community of exiles and their descendants from Chile and other South American dictatorships. More than 7,000 Chileans and others fled to Canada in the 1970s, escaping brutal coup d'etats, and massacres, disappearances and general persecution of leftists and regime opponents. They made it to Canada only after sustained campaigns by social movements here demanding they be given refuge. Many continued to resist the dictatorships by various means, including -- yes -- in some cases lending support to forms of armed struggle. These exiles (and those who remained, often in perilous underground conditions) were all supporters of resistance movements fighting for democracy and social justice -- not terrorists of any kind. They were and are the victims of terrorism: state terrorism. Many were also victims of torture, just like Marina Nemat. 

Perhaps most dangerously of all, Goldwater's crude anti-immigrant line plays into a climate of xenophobia and fear being whipped up by the powers-that-be in Canada today. This has real consequences for many refugees and others at risk of deportation.

Yesterday, I had a bit of a back-and-forth on Twitter with Jian Ghomeshi about what remedies should be taken in response to the offensive remarks. At a bare minimum, I would recommend:

-  An apology from the show and the CBC, both to Carmen Aguirre as an individual and to the Chilean and other South American exile communities as a whole.

-  The removal of Goldwater as a panellist. As it happens, the book she was advocating for was voted off on Tuesday's show. That's convenient; she should be removed too before she does more damage.

-  And finally, for the future, Canada Reads should adopt a basic jury selection type process for would-be panellists. A simple screening question would suffice: "Do you believe any of the books' authors are terrorists?"

I understand that in all this Ghomeshi does not call the shots and I have no doubt that, as someone with generally progressive politics, he must feel uncomfortable with these developments.

I hold the show's producers and ultimately, CBC executives, responsible for a failure to act. And fail they have. Having faced no consequences for her outbursts on Monday, Goldwater refused to apologize. Instead she upped her rhetoric, saying to the Globe and Mail yesterday, in another attack on Aguirre: "Once a terrorist, always a terrorist, that's for sure. We have to be careful who we let into this country; we really do. It's not funny any more."

Well, here's what we can be sure of: this Goldwater character is an arch-reactionary. (She also referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.) Once a bigot, always a bigot, you might say... CBC's Canada Reads needs to be more careful about who they let onto their program, they really do. This is not even close to funny any more.

Even in the event that Something Fierce wins the contest, or goes onto big sales because of all this attention, this sordid affair is a sign of a troubling coarsening in our public discourse and of a generally sad state of affairs in our country's cultural and political life. Is it too much to ask for a show discussing Canadian books to be a zone free of Tea Party-type nonsense?

Canada Reads should be a beautiful thing: our public broadcaster celebrating Canadian books and authors. This year, however, it has become an ugly farce. Readers and writers in Canada deserve better.

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