As a newspaper, the Toronto Star has never been my cup of tea, but it improved immeasurably in November, when after 25 years, its resident harridan columnist, Michelle Landsberg, finally packed it in and retired. For those unfamiliar with Mrs. Stephen Lewis (mother of the obsequious sometime-television-personality Avi Lewis, and mother-in-law of rabble-rousing Naomi Klein), she somehow managed to combine an overwrought style of prose (“finger by finger, we pried the icy grip of established religions from around our throats”), with the supreme smugness one only finds on the political left these days (“patriarchal types just don’t get it”).
Male rights groups like Fathers Canada accused her of outright misandry, and of playing fast and loose with the facts when it came to child custody battle statistics. Canada’s pro-life community remembers when she unfairly blasted Human Life International as “purveyors of hate and violence” and “true fascists.”
To make her points, Landsberg never shied away from cheap and nasty personal attacks. Former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm was “unutterably repellent,” former U.S. president Ronald Reagan was “a genial fool with a feeble grasp of reality” who waged “nutty wars” against communism (former Gulag resident Alexander Solzhenitsyn had a slightly different take on those “nutty wars,” but I digress), while the “thuggish regime” of Mike Harris waged a “stealth war on women.” (I’m not sure why the Ontario Tories would try to wage war on half the province if they wanted to get re-elected, but again, I digress).
Pro-lifers, in Landsberg’s expert opinion, were “narrow-minded fanatics,” and “religious bullies.” In one column, Landsberg blamed the murder of abortion doctors on the “disgusting rhetoric” and “fake ‘documentaries’ about screaming fetuses” of pro-lifers. “Although the anti-choice crusade is led by men, there is no shortage of women followers who will recoil at nothing, not even bloodshed, to bend other women to the will of their male-dominated religions,” wrote Landsberg. The Toronto Star’s website claims she wrote with “equal measures of passion, insight and humour.”
Last year, Canada’s Madame Defarge of Political Correctness received a small, yet embarrassing taste of her own medicine when the Ontario Press Council upheld a complaint made by evangelical Christians that one of her columns viciously attacked them for their attitudes towards homosexuals. The incident demonstrated that among the politically correct, certain groups are fair game for ridicule, and concepts like “tolerance” and “diversity” only go so far. A glaring hypocrisy? Of course it was. On the other hand, hypocrisy was nothing new for Landsberg, who sent her own children to private schools out of the conviction that one shouldn’t sacrifice one’s children to one’s beliefs, but fought tooth-and-nail against an effort to make private and religious schools more accessible for low-income families. In one column, Landsberg attacked the equity in education tax credit, which provided tax relief to low-income parents who send their children to independent schools: “The Harris regime may well be the first in North America actually to pay parents to remove children from the public system and send them to private schools,” wrote Landsberg, perhaps forgetting (or failing to understand) that allowing parents to keep more of the money they earn is hardly a payment.
As a commentator, Landsberg’s greatest failing was a complete inability to recognize that the folks who disagreed with her might have arrived at their views honestly, and merely possessed a different take on how to make the world a better place to live. Instead of viewing them as intellectual opponents, Landsberg saw modern-day Hitlers. The world she described is indeed a scary place, where rich, conservative, middle-aged men spend their days sipping scotch and thinking of new ways to harass minorities and single welfare moms.
It’s sometimes argued that one’s choice of insults often reflects the traits one dislikes most about oneself. Landsberg accused Human Life International of holding “paranoid fantasies,” but what can one say about someone who argued that standardized testing in schools “exists, not for ‘accountability’ or to help learning, but to sort, sift and winnow, making sure that the prize of a blue-ribbon university education and richly rewarded career goes only to a select few”?
Passion? Insight? Humour? I’d call that a conspiracy theory worthy of Oliver Stone. Twenty-five years was far too long, but better late than never.
Eli Schuster, a frequent contributor to The Interim, is a Toronto-based writer whose articles and commentary have appeared in the Financial Post, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and The Report. He has a masters degree in political science from York University.