18 March 2007

Mercer, Golfman and Afghanistan: good for circ if nothing else

Since January, the pretentious weekly The Independent has been embroiled in a debate between columnist Noreen Golfman and nationally known comedian Rick Mercer.

It started with a January column by Golfman, a professor in the English department at memorial University. Golfman took great issue with the media coverage of Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The tone of the entire piece is smarmy and condescending and whatever substantive discussion she may have hoped to spark was lost behind vacuous lines like this one:
Every time you opened a newspaper or listened to the news, especially on the CBC, you were compelled to reach for the box of tissues. If it wasn’t a story about some poor sod’s legs being blown off then it was an extended interview with some dead soldier’s parents. Indulging in another bite of dark chocolate was meant to be more painful this year. Here, have a plate of guilt with your second helping, my dear, and pass the self-reproach.
Incidentally, don't bother looking for that column at the Indy website. For some reason, only Mercer's rejoinder made it to the Internet courtesy of the newspaper itself. Someone did type it and posted it at army.ca. That column, like most of Golfman's stuff is relegated to the second section of the paper and rarely is selected for posting in an electronic version.

In any event, Golfman's comments on the war itself are confined to a simple statement of what she perceives as fact but which is entirely arguable on every point:
It is another to report on their presence in that unfamiliar place without so much as a hint that they don’t belong there, that the campaign to restore order and keep the Taliban from returning to power might be doomed, that blood is obviously begetting blood and that Canadians, and especially the Newfoundlanders who comprise such a disproportionate percentage of the overseas troops (compare with the number of African-Americans fighting in the doomed project of Viet Nam), are destined to return in body bags.
It is crucial to appreciate that this is the sum total of Golfman's attempts to discuss the substance of the issue, namely the mission in Afghanistan, its likelihood of success and its possible cost. It is crucial because Golfman's piece very clearly looks like it was supposed to discussing the inadequate coverage of the entire Afghan piece. Instead, it settled for sneering. Instead, Golfman opted for a ridiculous piece of Ship Inn sociology - catch the Vietnam thing? - that one would not even expect from a second year undergraduate, let alone the associate dean of graduate studies .

Get that point under your belt quickly, though. In subsequent utterances, usually by Golfman's editor Ryan Cleary, we are told that the piece was about the next subject Golfman turned her sights on, namely celebrities who head off to Afghanistan to entertain the troops.

Golfman dismissed them as follows:
Which leads me to kick at another sacred cow--that is, Rick Mercer and that whole lot of star Newfoundlanders who went over to entertain Our Boys (and Girls) over Christmas, reportedly flown to unmarked destinations and, presumably, forced to share some dehydrated food and wear really ugly clothing for a few days.
Golfman does a fine job of predicting that she would be criticized for her comments. Perhaps she felt them brave. But predicting criticism does not elevate her column to the status of a watershed commentary that would spark sudden introspection.

Golfman did not go out on a limb to criticise Mercer. She did so deliberately to take a swipe at a very successful local comedian who has gotten to where he is, like so many others, without remaining in this province and staring at Confederation Building until it hands out cash.

If she wanted to go out on a limb - i.e take a genuinely principled and brave position - she'd take issue with many in the local arts community who, while they ought to be critical of any government in the province, instead get weepy and tug their forelocks in gratitude for crumbs from the Crown. She'd take a smack at the second-rate historical fantasy her neo-nationalist friends pass off as fact.

Of course, none of that that would get Noreen invited back to the fetes run by the circle she moves in, including the odd government-sponsored logo celebration.

Taking the odd nasty phone call or e-mail from a nutjob is par for the course for anybody with a public profile - media people included. Most don't swoon, even figuratively, about the supposed price they pay for their "bravery" in the face of calls from idiots.

Bravery would be nailing the genuine sacred cow in this piece. Mercer and his colleagues do it with every trip to Kandahar or with every socially responsible commentary Mercer makes each week. He's earned his progressive stripes, for those who feel that is important. Mercer's opinions are not determined by what is ruled to be cool by his crowd.

Would that the same could be said of Golfman, who at times seems to relish her ties to the League of Professional Baymen more than those of us with one foot scarcely out of the red-soles.

Golfman smacked at Rick. Little did she know that what she would get back was a sharply worded, eloquent rejoinder to her pretentious tripe. Mercer's 1500 word riposte hit Golfman squarely where it hurts - in the pomposity. Mercer took on each of her points, demonstrating exactly how shallow her original column had been.

Turns out Rick bested Golfman in every dimension, right down to the tone of the column itself. He knows how to skewer without pretension.

It didn't take a doctoral degree to do the job.

In the end, that must have been the thing that stung worst of all.


Portions of this post appeared, in edited form, as a comment on towniebastard. They are repeated here, slightly edited, since a good rant should not be wasted.


kodak said...

I've been a bit turned off at the Indy and missed that particular letter from her, but was sent it and Mercer's reply about a month later. Don't watch his stuff a lot, but he is indeed a creative person, can be sharp and analytical. His response to her was excellent and gave me a new respect for him. It was well put together and made her look like a spoiled child looking for attention.

Dale Kirby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gord said...

Golfman's piece was poorly written/argued, and cringe-inducing in spots, but who could deny her main point -- that the media coverage of Afghanapalooza has been a joke? (For a better argument along the same lines, see John Doyle in the Globe a few months back.) Why hasn't this deficiency been discussed more, in the wake of this story?

Chretien, Martin and Harpo never went out of their way to explain the situation in Afghanistan, or our presence there. This is where the media is supposed to step in and ask questions, clarify, etc. Haven't seen too much of that, though. Instead we get context-free profiles of soldiers, appeals to the usual vague homilies about "freedom," etc., and dubious oversimplifications such as "our soldiers are fighting terrorists."

Gotta disagree with Ed re. Mercer's response to the Golfmeister. The terms "self-important," "gag-inducing" and "wanker" come to mind.

Ed, are you really saying that Golfperson was criticizing Mercer and co. for moving to the mainland rather than staying in Nfld. and waiting around for arts grants? That argument seemed to come out of nowhere.

Mercer is supposed to be a "satirist," but he rarely pokes at anything but the safest targets. Politicians fall over themselves to be associated with him, which is not a sign that his wicked wit is to be feared. Rather than risk the wrath of the paymasters in gov't, it's easier to just mock Americans for not knowing anything about Canada. (Gee Rick, maybe it's cuz our country, in the grand scheme of things, just ain't that important??)

P.S.: Ed, how do you like the media's coverage of Afghanistan? Maybe a subject for a future blog entry.

Edward G. Hollett said...

If mercer pokes at safe targets then he at least pokes.

The local arts community scarcely says anything of consequence... except thanks for the cheque.

My point on that was simple: if Golfman wants to take issue with someone for not following their muse to its logical and consistent conclusion then she'd be writing endlessly about the locals.

And yeah, I am saying that her comments had less to do with a wider critique of media coverage than being a potshot.

Edward G. Hollett said...

As for the issue of media coverage of Afghanistan, it might be a subject for a future post.

What struck me most about Golfman's column on that aspect was that she was essentially delivering the same sort of stock anti-American tirade of the chic left that sounds so much like what we used to get in the 1980s. I recall at the time trying desperately to get anyone fired up about the Soviet invasion. It wasn't fashionable, and hence few were concerned about it.

"if I had a rocket launcher" wasn't written about Soviet occupation troops dropping cluster bombs on Afghan villages by the dozen.

Gord said...

Seems to me it's actually NOT fashionable for Cdns. to think critically, or at all, about the Afghanistan situation. Which was part of Dr. Golfman's much-mangled point.

She descended into a facile kind of treatment of the issues, but at the same time it was welcome to see a critique of the weak media coverage. More of that is needed, from all corners.

Yr digression re. the eminently-imperfect-lord-knows arts community is gratuitous.

"If mercer pokes at safe targets then he at least pokes." ... Whatta stirring defence there, Ed.

Mercer still benefits from the 'outspoken contrarian' brand he has built up. But it's been harder to maintain that kind of cred since he became established as another one of those CBC-tenured-overexposed-smarmy types.

The Bob Hope comparison was "LOL," as the kids say. I bet that one stung.