When I was in Dublin recently a brief news story in The Irish Times caught my attention.
The gist was this: At a bar in central Dublin, a place where politicians and media types gather, there had been a "confrontation" to which the police were summoned. A certain sports figure was on the premises and the premises were entered by two comedians well known for their work on a satirical radio show called Nob Nation.
Said sports figure has been mocked often on the show as has his girlfriend, a glamorous TV personality. Seeing the comedians, the sports figure berated them. They answered with equally heated remarks. Some pushing and shoving ensued and bar staff called the cops. As an aside, the story mentioned that many members of the Irish government had witnessed the affray, highly amused.
I got a kick out of the story – an example of the vigour of the culture and reported with wry amusement by a rather staid newspaper.
Hereabouts, there is less vigour and a lot more lazy moralizing about satire and the mockery of the famous and the powerful. The staunch sense of righteousness which became the dominant tone of the Rob-Ford-versus- 22 Minutes incident was a salutary reminder that in some aspects, Canada is a highly intolerant country. Intolerant of spoofery, intolerant of ridicule intended to expose pomposity and falsity, intolerant of sarcasm aimed at the powerful.
What was truly startling about the bizarre Ford incident was the howling for apologies. Much media yakking – we don't have media analysis in Canada, we merely have people inside the media venomously passing judgment on other people in the media – amounted to demands that the CBC apologize to Rob Ford.
There was a quality of bullying to this demand. First, of course, the idea that the satirists at 22 Minutes might issue an apology to a political figure is a juicy one to a certain constituency. Bring the mockers to their knees, let them know who's boss. A tipping-point moment to emphasize that this country has shifted to the right and conservatives will not tolerate mockery. Further, though, the incident and ensuing media yakking, almost all of it bombastic right-wing hectoring – which is what characterizes the Canadian media these days – popped up at just the point where the CBC is under fierce attack. It is being attacked by a commercial competitor, Quebecor, with the Conservative Party and Conservative MPs piling on. The Rob Ford incident represented another opportunity to heap scorn on the CBC for being what its enemies always say it is – boring, stupid and lefty.
While the Rob-Ford-versus- 22 Minutes thing unfolded, Rick Mercer used the suicide of a 15-year-old to occasion a powerful rant about homophobic bullying in schools. He challenged gay adults, in particular public figures, to be less invisible. The rant caused considerable hand-wringing, and a number of media outlets, including this one, dismissed Mercer's call for more public figures to come out of the closet. It was an interesting debate, but what interested me was that the teens being bullied to the point of suicide were forgotten as the protection of public figures became paramount. Once again, we got a hint that the bosses, especially the political bosses, expect to be coddled in this country, not challenged or mocked.
It is a fact that the Conservative government is determined to change the narrative of Canada, to change the country's image of itself to suit the Conservative agenda. Lots of governments in lots of places try to achieve the same. But it is as true here as it is anywhere else that the narrative cannot be changed if figures of political authority are challenged and their attitudes mocked. To achieve the change those in power need more acquiescence and less satire. That's what the battles surrounding 22 Minutes, Rob Ford and Rick Mercer are about.
I thought back to the beginning of the Ford era in Toronto. Don Cherry introduced Ford at his swearing-in. Famously, Cherry delivered a rambling rant about "pinkos" and appeared to mean those who had questioned his role in the swearing-in. A lot of people understood Cherry to be ranting about a column in the Toronto Star and one here by yours truly. "This is what you'll be facing, Rob, with these left-wing pinkos," Cherry bellowed. "They scrape the bottom of the barrel." The tone of the Ford administration was set right there – intolerance of the press, fury at mockery.
After reading about that incident in Dublin, I listened to Nob Nation and other satiric radio shows over there. The tone is savage – ruthlessly jeering at politicians and the pompous. What we have here in Canada is by comparison, very tame. Nobody is outraged, except that guy in the pub.
And it all reminded me that in the United States, the mockery of authority on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live and other shows is accepted. Nobody is yakking about apologies being in order. Here, the demonization of 22 Minutes and the ridicule aimed at Rick Mercer bespeaks an intolerance. It is incumbent on us to save the satirists, to save ourselves, save our sense of humour and thereby save Canada.
ALSO AIRING TONIGHT
Steve Jobs: One Last Thing (PBS, 10 p.m.) was not available in advance for review. But the program promises "a candid view of the man." We're told we'll see "his difficult, controlling businessman side" and among these interviewed are Steve Wozniak, Ronald Wayne, Dean Hovey and Bill Fernandez from Apple, plus politician Ross Perot, designer Robert Palladino and musician Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.
Check local listings.