|Sound and fury against Garr column signifies nothing
May 14, 2000
William Jennings Bryan died on June 26, 1925, five days after “successfully” prosecuting John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school. Here’s how the great American editor H.L. Mencken a month later concluded Bryan’s obituary:
“Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was arrogant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had travelled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded of childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you imagine everything he was not. The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.”
Now that’s writing! Mencken used the full palette of the English language to create a masterpiece that is still as vital today as when it was written 75 years ago. It’s also honest and courageous, unlike much of the innocuous clutter that passes for journalism these days.
Possibly some of you were offended, and so did not appreciate Mencken’s genius. That’s unfortunate, but at least by taking offence you proved that you’re alive. I pity people who can read such writing and not feel anything; they are as good as dead.
For an editorial writer, there is no greater insult than to be received with indifference. An editorial, properly written, should offend at least one person. Unlike reportage, editorial writing is not meant to be balanced. It argues for a point of view, sometimes vigorously. If that means taking direct aim at a politician or some other public figure, so be it.
Such editorials done well are highly entertaining and effective. They also have a tendency to elicit heated responses from allies of the political figure in question, thus making the editorialist the target. If you stopped at page 9 before getting to my column you know what I mean.
The letters on that page are entirely devoted to impassioned assaults on city columnist Allen Garr for his May 7 column “Roslyn Cassells—all mouth and no mind.”
Garr wrote that Cassells’ obstreperous, disruptive conduct at parks board meetings has done more harm than good to her reputation and the causes she professes to support: “I can’t remember anyone in this town squandering political capital so quickly and so completely. Instead of building bridges, she burns them down, and she gives good causes a bad name.”
To support his argument, Garr cited a letter from the Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre, calling Cassells “a catalyst for chaos,” in which president Marie Davis requested that the board assign the centre a different liaison officer.
Garr’s column doesn’t begin to match Mencken’s acerbic virtuosity-it’s downright scholarly by comparison-but it’s in the same tradition, and in its own way is just as entertaining and well-written. Too bad the same can’t be said for Garr’s assailants.
It never ceases to amaze me how a columnist can write something, and then find himself assailed by readers who misread the column or read into it what they wanted to see. (Let’s say I’ve had experience in this matter.)
Apart from the flippant letters from Colin Stark and Korky Day, which were rather amusing, the attacks on Garr are feeble and hypocritical. If Garr is to be condemned for disparaging Cassells, these letter writers think nothing of impugning the integrity of NPA commissioners.
Anne Jamieson, a former Communist Party of Canada (M-L) candidate says Garr’s column was a “spiteful, malicious attack” on Cassells. Curiously, she offers no proof of spite or malice, and the passage she cites has little to do with Cassells. If anyone embodies malice it’s Jamieson.
Don Nordin and Russell Adams write that Garr was unfair to Cassells’ politics, but he wasn’t. Garr acknowledged that Cassells champions good causes, but said that her obnoxious conduct vitiates the good she accomplishes. These writers entirely missed Garr’s point, as shown by this quote from Nordin:
“Garr has abandoned the real issue, which is the inability of the elected members of the parks board to live up to their campaign promises and to make decisions that represent the real interests of their constituents.”
The “real issue” is that a reform-minded commissioner is alienating her constituency because she doesn’t know the difference between intelligent dissent and a tantrum.
Imtiaz Popat’s letter is both irrelevant and irresponsible. Much of it reads like a desperate apologia for Cassells that’s long on assertions and short on substance. (If he has evidence of an NPA smear campaign against her let him cite evidence.)
Most galling is his misuse of evidence to discredit Garr. “Garr ignores the letter from the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre he was given at the last meeting apologizing to Cassells while blasting the NPA majority board for a publicly abusive letter about her,” Popat wrote.
Ray-Cam did write an apology to Cassells on April 28, but not regarding the request to have her removed as liaison, as Popat would have us assume. The centre was upset that the request was publicized in the Province. The letter reiterated the centre’s objection to Cassells, but stated its regret that Cassells suffered any embarrassment because of the publicity.
Garr did the city a service by reporting on Cassells’ ineptitude. Better the truth told boldly and honestly than be smothered in euphemisms and disingenuous politesse.