Ignatieff caves to international pressure, orders Kinsella to apologize
After more than a week of inaction, Michael Ignatieff finally caved in to growing outrage over his senior aide’s anti-Chinese comments. On Tuesday, Ignatieff disciplined Warren Kinsella for his ethnic slur that Chinese Canadians eat cat meat and serve it in Chinese restaurants. He ordered Kinsella to issue an unconditional apology, which can be seen below. (The Chinese sign behind him reads “I’m sorry”.)
Kinsella had previously issued what he passed off as an apology, but actually consisted of a political rant against his critics, including Alice Wong, a Chinese-Canadian MP. That non-apology apology only fed the news cycle, transforming the story from Kinsella’s original slur to his refusal to apologize – and Ignatieff’s refusal to discipline him.
The story dominated Chinese Canadian newspapers and radio talk shows for over a week, and then went viral on the Internet, both in Canada and in China itself, where it appeared on some of the world’s highest-traffic news websites.
Will it stop the bleeding? Normally it would, but Kinsella just can’t help himself. Even today, he kept getting up from the canvas – lashing out at his Chinese critics on his blog – only to be pummeled again and again. He's breathing life into the story. The man’s ego just won’t let him stay quiet, and that's a problem for his party.
I went back on Google China’s website to see if things had died down over there. No chance. Take a look at this translation of Google China’s news pages – there are new stories about Kinsella’s slur every few hours. Just for example, take a news story dated February 4, from China.com – which has bigger traffic than, say, the Globe and Mail. Here’s the English version, using Google’s somewhat rickety translation software. Some excerpts:
…inexplicable defamation… ethnic joke is unacceptable… [in Kinsella’s previous non-apology] the first five paragraphs are condemning the Conservative Party… we can see is not a formal apology… Chinese can not accept the “ironic apology”… the Liberal Party did not make any remarks on the matter… [Kinsella, who is] a lawyer should not knowingly violate the law… racial discrimination…
You get the picture. And that was published after Kinsella’s second, forced apology today. I think things are going to keep ricocheting around China’s Internet for a while.
Especially since Canada’s Chinese language press is far from done with the matter. The big newspapers all had follow-up stories today, noting how Conservative MPs Jason Kenney, Pierre Poilievre and Alice Wong had all visited the restaurant slandered by Kinsella, to show their respect.
…Kim Sheila… vilification… great insult and is discriminatory, Chinese can not accept this sort of speech… Yang Cheng restaurant in Ottawa has been operating locally for more than 40 years, production of meat is very well known… payment of the so-called double irony apology, that there is no sincerity.
I’m not going to bother translating and excerpting the four other Chinese daily newspapers that went heavy on the story today. You can see them for yourself here: Sing Tao, Today Daily News, New News and World Journal.
A number of readers have e-mailed me asking why this story is important, and whether or not my criticisms of Kinsella's conduct are in conflict with my belief in freedom of speech. Let me answer.
Kinsella's comments were an insult to the Chinese community in a way that stung them – it was an implication that Chinese are uncivilized, and trick their customers. That’s a particular implication that hurts. It would be like saying all Irish are drunks, or all Jews are stingy, or all Italians are mafia. If a senior aide to a party leader had said those things, it would have been huge news in those communities’ newspapers, too -- and back in Ireland, Israel and Italy.
But we all say stupid things from time to time. The test isn’t so much whether we can go through life not putting our foot in our mouth – especially those of us who talk for a living. The test is what we do when we screw up. How we handle it.
Do we take responsibility? Do we man up? Or do we hide our tracks and blame others? That’s been the surprise here – and, as you can see, it’s been a major focus of the Chinese press.
And this story is special because it involves the most self-righteous critic in Canada, Warren Kinsella. Kinsella is lightening quick to accuse his political rivals of bigotry when it suits his agenda. I know it sounds nuts, but Kinsella has even implied that I – a Zionist Jew – am a Nazi sympathizer. There’s no-one he won’t taint with accusations of racism. So to see him hoist on his own petard is a fascinating turn-around of events. I hope that Kinsella's hypocrisy when it comes to bigoted remarks will make him less eager to level a charge of racism against his opponents in the future, but I doubt it.
Watching Kinsella come to terms with what he said is fascinating, but it wouldn’t be of national (or international) importance if Kinsella weren’t attached to Michael Ignatieff. And in that sense, it’s been an education, too – can Ignatieff manage a team? How does he handle crises? Is he more afraid of Kinsella being inside his tent, or outside of it?
As I said when I first started writing about Catscam, I don’t believe that there should be any legal sanctions for saying things that are politically incorrect or rude – or even outright racist. I've railed against the human rights commissions going after a rude comedian. I’m not for an HRC telling Kinsella he can’t say what he said; I’m not for hate speech charges under the criminal code; I’m not for punishing the man by using the resources of the state to grind him down. Ironically, Kinsella is for those things.
As Canada’s gay lobby, Egale, says, there is a positive good to allowing hate speech – it permits us to identify who the bigots are, and it provides a “teachable moment”. That’s exactly what happened here. I’m glad that Kinsella was able to speak out and exercise his freedom of speech. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese Canadians now know all about him and his party, and can make decisions with all the facts.
I am surprised that Ignatieff hasn’t fired Kinsella over this – as far as we know, at least. I find it inconceivable that Kinsella will be able to behave himself for any extended period of time without smearing someone else. That’s pretty much his one campaign move – flinging dirt. Oh – and suing people he disagrees with. Kinsella has filed a $50,000 lawsuit against me already for pointing out his association with the unsavoury characters at the Canadian Islamic Congress (another eruption that came to light on Kinsella’s own blog). I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if he files a lawsuit against me for reporting his anti-Chinese slurs, and the media coverage of it.
But that’s his frat boy approach, his punk band approach, to politics. It’s not a fit with Ignatieff’s own professorial approach, and it’s not a fit with Canadian sensibilities. I don’t think it will work, and I’m surprised Ignatieff hasn’t realized that yet.
Perhaps he will realize it when the trial of Kinsella’s nuisance lawsuit against me goes to court – and Ignatieff is treated to another embarrassing week in the media at the hands of his master war-roomer.