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.