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2008 02 17
Culture & Multiculture 13: Globe & Mail Comments Closed?

Canadian media leapt right up in arms a few weeks back. Leapt all over the Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant Human Rights Commissions Affairs. I heard Christie Blatchford expressing her say on CFRB. Seen Rex Murphy performing his. Not much left to be said. Not by me. Particularly not after reading the thoroughly insightful Eye Weekly editorial concluding:
Human Rights Commissions.. need to be reined in. They should have no jurisdiction to restrict or stand in judgment of freedom of speech and of the press.
Indeed. There was no point me saying anything. No need. Not once the public and press got unanimously moving heaven and earth. Swelling the very ground demonstrating how our tolerant, free and democratic multicultural principles must not get stretched and torn beyond total absurdity. There’s no right to not be offended. There’s no duty to not offend.

That’s why the withdrawal of the complaint against Ezra Levant came as no surprise. It requires powerfully principled courage to persist despite mainstreaming media full-blowing gales of public opinion. Also why not much significant will emerge from the complaint against Mark Steyn. We were mostly born before yesterday. There’s no right to not be offended. There’s no duty to not offend.

But a thing of potentially greater significance occurred on February 13th, 2008. Something mainstream Canadian media will neither crane nor ostrich to note. Something mainstream media will not sufficiently acknowledge to wilfully ignore. Despite how plain the evidence of it having happened remains for all to see.

Evidence found at one popular -- unusually highly recommended by over 100 votes -- Globe article. About how Major Danish newspapers republish Mohammed cartoon. In order to express “unconditional solidarity” with democratic culture against threatened terror. Soon after Danish police arrest suspects in plot to kill cartoonist.

At second glance or third reading nothing much appears out of place. There is no option to comment on this Globe article -- but that’s not in itself unusual. As regular contributors to Globe commentaries well know and often bitterly bemoan, Globe editors have increasingly withheld options to comment articles addressing controversial subject matter. And what could possibly be more controversial than major newspapers anywhere -- at any time -- republishing so-called “Mohammed” cartoon(s)? However rightly or very wrongly, there is nothing particularly unusual in Globe editors having provided no option for readers commenting.

But hold on. One moment, please. What’s this here? Why.. it sure looks like a comments page titled “Major Danish newspapers republish Mohammed cartoon”. It really totally looks just like a dedicated comments page. Specifically dedicated to the Globe article in question -- the title of which it shares. The one at which there was no option to comment. Which must mean there had initially been available the option to comment -- and that commentary was only subsequently closed. Except.. that can’t be right either. For if there had been option to comment earlier then, presumably, there would continue existing standard links as from any article to its own commentary page. And there aren’t. No such linking exists. There is absolutely nothing forward-linking the originating article to what appears its own comments page.

Moreover, there is not one single comment at the comments page. There is nothing but the standard notice provided whenever commentary gets closed:
Thanks for your interest in commenting on this article, however we are no longer accepting submissions. If you would like, you may send a letter to the editor… Report an abusive comment to our editorial staff
Say, what? “No longer accepting submissions”? “Report an abusive comment”? What comment? There’s nothing there -- whether to report or merely to read. Where are all the comments posted prior submissions ceased getting accepted? What has happened here?

What happened was, to my alter-ego’s long Globe-commenting experience, a novel and complete first.

It happened the morning of February 13th. Some time between seven and eight A.M. As often if not usual on rising, I checked online news (not only) at the Globe. Wondering what our time-space sector had been getting into during my absence. That’s when I found the “Mohammed” cartoon re-publishing article and read all about it. Subsequent to which reading I sat slightly stunned. Like, seriously? Our time-space sector was getting into those so-called “Mohammed” cartoons? Again?

Meanwhile, however, my Globe-commenting alter-ego -- Lie Detector -- was gathering neither moss nor wool. Checked immediately to see whether commenting was permitted. Which it was. Permitted -- and booming. The article had been posted at 3:31 A.M. and, already, by between seven and eight that morning, the number of comments was poised near exceeding the first hundred.

Took reading maybe fifty comments or so for Lie Detector to start itching at my fingers. I could feel him taking over parts of my mind -- no doubt formulating contributory arguments. But I stopped him cold. Got up. Stepped into my boots. Threw my jacket on. Stumbled outside, grabbed a shovel and pushed record-breaking amounts of snow off the sidewalk. Came in and fed cats. Took maintenance cat-food outside and filled up the stray-animal dishes. Went out back and clambered bird-feeder from tree. Filled bird-feeder. Clambered it back up the tree. Returned inside, sat my selves down and prepared giving Lie Detector free reigning.

We wondered -- Lie Detector and I -- how many new comments had accumulated. That’s why we were so unprepared. Because, given how hot the subject, we were expecting significant further accumulation. Not what we discovered when refreshing the comments page. The way it blanked right out. Like, tabula utterly rasa. No comments there whatsoever.

There was still a (closed) comments page there -- just no comments. And we thought for a moment that we’d imagined or hallucinated all the comments we’d read. But no, we weren’t going nuts or anything. Absent all commentary, why would there even be any comments page? Clearly, comments had been closed and, unbelievably, all prior commentary had been purged. Purged of each, every and last comment. Just eradicated.

Thinking it could only be a glitch, we re-loaded the original article and moused around seeking any the three standard links leading from articles to commentary. But -- nope. All gone. Links to comments had been razed just as well. Equally as thoroughly. All that remained was this blank limbo-floating comments page. Inaccessible as ghosts or quarks from our time-space sector. Except for the captive URL later found archeologically deep in our browser’s cache.

Lie Detector vanished too. In a puff of terminal disgust. Purging by revisionist retroactive censorship struck him too totalitarian. Contributing commentary at the Globe had been his whole reason for being around. Once he figured what shameless mockery of public space had been foisted by the Globe on its public -- he had no reason left for being. So he stopped.

I’m not like that, though. I don’t go leaping that hasty to my conclusions. However unlikely -- what if it all turned out to have been a long series of coinciding glitches? Or what if, albeit not personally conceivable to me, someone at the Globe had a perfectly reasonable explanation for purging public commentary?

That’s why the following day, on Thursday, February 14th, I called the Globe & Mail. Canada’s national newspaper. To find out why.

“What happened to that comments page,” I asked. “How come it vanished so traceless?”

I was passed down, sideways and up the hierarchy. Eventually, I was told I needed to speak with Executive Editor Jim Sheppard. I was also told, namelessly and insistently off the record, that the comments page had been eradicated because commentary at it had “diverged into wild racism.” This was a good thing -- being told this off the record. First, because of how laughable it was by way of rationalization. Second, because it confirmed how conclusively commentary purging had been due to no glitch. Eradication had been totally intentional.

Remaining eager to hear what rationale there officially was on the record -- opposed to off the record rationalization -- I nervously recorded my question with Mr. Sheppard’s answering service. He was away from his desk at that moment. And then naïve silly me waited by the phone a couple hours. For the Globe & Mail’s Executive Editor to return my call and answer my question. Subsequent to which couple hours I recorded my question at Mr. Sheppard’s again -- since he was away from his desk at that precise moment as well. And then I hung around waiting the next day. Friday, February 15th. As if the Globe’s Executive Editor had nothing better to do.

Doesn’t matter. Commentary had been intentionally purged. And it’s just ignorant rationalizing such indiscriminate purging of public commentary for some blithely alleged racism. There’s no excuse alleging or even mentioning racism in the first place. Not when disputing is cultural. Because it isn't easy conceiving any better working definition for 'racism' than falsely believing all dispute, hatred, conflict or clashing as a function of race. Too much hatred? Fine -- eliminate those comments expressing hatred. But declaring any and all disputing -- even outright hatred -- as racist? When issues in dispute so obviously cross all our ideologically constructed false discriminations of race, gender and economic class? No. That has got to be a joke. Or ignorance. Potentially even racist.

Doesn’t matter. I really wanted to ask whether Globe editors had ever purged public commentary so brazenly before. But never mind. Whether or not they had. Whether on or off the Globe’s record. There’s huge problems with doing so. Ever.

Danish papers re-publishing any so-called “Mohammed” cartoon was major international news, right? Regardless who became offended. Regardless whether “mobs of youths torch[ing] cars.. in Danish cities” had anything to do with it or not. Of course it was big news -- as per the Globe’s carrying the story of it all the way over here in Canada.

Perhaps, when it comes to a so-called “Mohammed” cartoon, Danish papers went too far defending democratic culture. But globally censoring all comment whether Danish papers went too far defending democratic culture? That also goes too far. Goes even farther -- the opposite way. It utterly offends against democratic culture if or when Canada’s national newspaper gets censoring that spectacularly -- like, completely censoring the very public it invited to comment that “Mohammed” cartoon.

Rather than engaging yet farther and further in such spectacular censorship, the Globe would do far better not to provide any forum for free speaking and free public expressing whatsoever. This is not in any way to intimate that Globe message boards legally constitute anything other than private proprietary space. However. There can be no doubt the Globe derives great benefits, both economic and otherwise, from public participating. Further. As Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe itself relies upon principles consistently applied throughout our free and democratic society: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Therefore, the Globe must not engage in extravagant censorship. Doing so harms not only Toronto, Canadian public spheres -- but calls into doubt how any future of Canadian press can remain free. For what is more likely to restrict freedom of speech, expression and the press in Canada? Human Rights Commissions of questionable jurisdiction arriving at occasionally absurd decisions? Or Canada’s national newspaper repeatedly engaging in exaggerated censoring? Yeah. Obviously. That’s why Canada’s national newspaper had better cease and desist repeating disproportionate censorship.

And it absolutely was spectacular, extravagant, exaggerated and disproportionate censorship. Partially or fully moderating public commentary? Vital. Removing, as warranted, comments specifically reported as abusive? Necessary. Indiscriminately purging all commentary from comments pages -- while razing electronic linkage in order to eradicate the evidence of having done so? Unbelievable. So not Canadian. So.. gulag.

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University.]

[Globe comments image above is a screen capture from here.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 02/17 at 01:51 PM

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