Dispatch from The Front Line: Doing the Code Dance

In which we defend the indefensible -- especially the best Maclean's magazine cover of our time

Happy Friday, Line readers.

We’ve had another good week. But it could be better. For all our recent arrivals, a recap: The Line is a side project run by several writers and editors, and virtually all of our income pays our contributors at least a nominal sum. We would love to grow this thing into something larger, but our growth is linked directly to expanding our subscriber base. For those who are on our free list, if you like what you see, please, sign up today for a paid subscription. We have lots more that we would like to do. The sooner we hit financial sustainability — and we are about halfway to our first major threshold — the sooner we can get down to business on that work. We think it’s important. We suspect you do, too.

And we were recently reminded why. Two of your Line editors had a confab by telephone on Friday and chatted about what we should include in this week’s dispatch. As we were chatting, we came upon a funny coincidence — both of us recently found ourselves doing what one of us termed “the code dance” while chatting with acquaintances. The code dance is the awkward, coded, test of views two people will exchange before they broach a topic that might be controversial. It’s actually a bit like a flirtation.

However, if the code dance concludes successfully, instead of getting laid, you are just able to have a real human discussion without fear that your private conversations will be exposed ahead of a cancellation campaign on Twitter.

Your Line editors never used to tiptoe around their opinions, yet we recently realized that we now play this weird social game all the time. And the topics we hesitate to discuss before concluding the code dance are utterly banal; the ordinary-but-difficult conversations necessary to functioning in the world as a journalist. For example, expressing skepticism of a particular narrative forming around a recent news event that, as it happened, did not long survive the reporting.

But expressing such skepticism now invites instant condemnation and attacks from colleagues and (former) friends. The equivalent of being declared an SP. Even suggesting we hold off before drawing hasty conclusions about said event can be interpreted as an attack by a culture gripped by deep tribalism. These topics should be safe for news professionals to debate openly, but in many quarters, they aren’t.

Your Line editors are better positioned than most to speak our minds — privileged, even. So this isn’t about us. It’s about the people we were talking to. They suspected we’d be of like mind, but still approached us very, very carefully, for fear of their own livelihoods and reputations. This isn’t healthy. This isn’t sustainable. But it’s the way things are today.

That’s what The Line is here for. You have nothing to fear from us. If we disagree with you, will simply tell you so directly. Like we used to.

Help us grow it.

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We said in last week’s dispatch that we were monitoring the Conservative Party of Canada’s virtual convention, and that we’d bring you any commentary that it warranted. We brought you no such commentary this week. Draw your own conclusions.

We will say, this, though. We think the kerfuffle about the party delegates’ vote to not affirm their belief in climate change is overblown, for two big reasons. The first is that Canadians are largely full of shit on climate change. Yes, it’s true that polls indicate we are concerned about the issue — Very Concerned, even. But polls also show how much we’re actually willing to do about it, and the answer is, not a fuck of a lot.

The second point we’d make is that every Conservative convention comes with warnings of deep splits within the party, with long features by Toronto- or Ottawa-based writers explaining how out of touch Tories are with “mainstream Canadians” like them, how unelectable they are outside their western base, and so on and so on. We agree that the Tories have problems, and it’s clear that not everybody is happy inside that big blue tent (or any big tent). But the Conservatives won the popular vote last time, and though Brownface Trudeau did a lot of the heavy lifting don’t forget: Andrew Scheer was the CPC leader. Can we suggest that one comes out a wash?

Don’t read too much into the doom and gloom that surrounds every CPC convention. There are always stories just like the climate change one, and if you don’t believe us, just recall that long-ago era of, ahem, one week ago, when all the coverage was warning that pro-life insurgents in the party were going to hijack the agenda and cause a meltdown by chanting about abortion all weekend.

Didn’t happen. Went nowhere. We suspect the coverage of the climate change issue, though unhelpful and awkward, will vanish just as quickly now that the chattering classes, ourselves included, have filed the obligatory quota of “convention stories” and moved on to something more interesting (which is almost anything).

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Now, dear friends of The Line, we must confess. When we began this newsletter last year, we did so with a clear statement of principles and intent. We did not predict that that these principles would so quickly lead us to a distasteful duty. But we are afraid that integrity requires it of us. We must defend Amir Attaran, the living embodiment of this classic Clickhole headline: Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.

For those who may not be familiar with the University of Ottawa professor, Attaran is a bit of a dumbass. He frequently tweets stupid and unfounded things — like calling the Conservatives the party of the “uneducated” — that manage to come off as worse by virtue of his pomposity and total lack of self awareness.

Yes, we are going to get to the defending him part. Give us a minute.

Anyway, you know he’s said something dumb again when this tweet thread begins to make the rounds. It’s very funny.

Well this week, he managed to tweet something provocative again.

Please note that these examples did not generate even 100 likes. Yet somehow these Twitter posts merited official responses from Quebec premier François Legault, a Conservative MP from Quebec, and the goddamn Prime Minister.

We’re just going to say this. We at The Line like visiting Quebec a lot. We have a generally pro-Quebec stance; however, these annual meltdowns because Some Anglo Said Something Mean About Quebec are getting really tiresome. Somehow this province has managed to prove itself to be even more thin-skinned than Alberta — yes, we said it. Quebec is more reactive than the province that last week suffered a fit over an unflattering children’s cartoon.

And for some reason, the rest of Canada continues to treat these tantrums as if they are very weighty and serious matters meriting news coverage and discussion by very weighty and serious people. Canada’s indulgence of Quebec’s inability to tolerate pointed criticism is probably why the province gets away with passing racist legislation like Bill 21. And no one — least of all politicians — dare say boo because they’re all too eager to win seats in a populous province perpetually in play.

Attaran’s tweets wouldn’t even be worth our lowly mention, except that they prompted response from Justin Trudeau himself, who responded by saying: “Enough of the Quebec bashing.” That’s right, what we have here is Prime Minister Brownface condemning the tweets of an Iranian-Canadian professor who called Quebec racist by declaring such comments “Quebec bashing.” People, we are down the rabbit hole.

Earlier in this dispatch, we called Attaran a bit of a dumbass, and maybe some of you found that assessment a bit harsh. Others, perhaps not. We leave ourselves open to be capably judged by you, our dear readers. But we must ask this: What kind of dumbass do you have to be to make a figure like Amir Attaran into a national hero on free speech grounds? Good lord.

Speaking of people whose name starts with “A,” in media news, your Line editors were surprised to see Anne Marie Owens appointed editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star. That’s not a dig on Owens, universally known to colleagues as AMO. She’s eminently qualified. It’s just that she had recently completed that rarest of media feats — she left the biz on her own terms, with her head held high, and took what sounded like a great job in academia. We mean, like … why would anyone want to come back to this? Was she missing the code dance? Folks, believe us. It’s not nearly as sensual as the above .gif might suggest.

So, yes, we’re baffled. But we’re certainly rooting for her. Your Line editors have worked with AMO and they like AMO. She was well-respected by staff at the National Post and Maclean’s, where she held senior roles, including EiC of the Post.

That said, we are concerned she is stepping into a tough position. She is replacing Irene Gentle, another very well-liked boss, who rather than being led to the front door with a suitcase filled with money, is instead being promoted to obscurity within the tower at 1 Yonge. Further, the Star has a reputation for being a nastier, more factional newsroom than either the Post or Maclean’s. AMO may start her tenure typecast as the former National Post EiC — the editor of a *cough* conservative newspaper. That won’t be fair, of course, as AMO never struck your Line editors as particularly ideological, but we would be genuinely surprised if her new newsroom were as welcoming as it ought to be.

As best we can tell, Gentle’s promotion was in no way punitive or a knock on the outgoing editor. The Star and its sister papers, as we’ve discussed here before, were recently purchased for a song by new owners who seized the chance to grab the struggling newspaper for less money than TorStar, the parent company, had in cash on hand. (Yes, by the logic of the transaction, TorStar is literally worth negative dollars.) It is fairly routine for new ownership to bring in a new EiC.

One thing that occurred to us is that AMO’s selection may be revealing of more than meets the eye. Your Line editors have long heard rumbles about a looming merger of TorStar and Postmedia. Such rumours are eternal in the biz, but these came from well-placed sources. The rapid collapse of legacy media’s revenue base will not allow many of the existing players to survive, and COVID-19 has accelerated this trend bigly. Shutdowns and mergers will be the name of the game in the coming years, and both TorStar and Postmedia are financial wrecks. The Globe will likely be the survivor of Canadian newspapers, and it will assuredly be so, if TorStar and Postmedia don’t step smartly and do a little code dance of their very own.

If the Star’s new owners are really going to try and merge the Star and the Post — a damn difficult task, given their widely divergent editorial positions and at times unfriendly rivalry — there are a few people you could hire to serve as a bridge to help smooth that process out. But only a few. It’s a short list. AMO’s name would be awfully near the top of it.

With the announcement this week of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to uphold the federal government’s carbon tax, we noticed that this gem of a Maclean’s cover is making the rounds once again.

We have two things we would like to note: firstly, all of you uber-attuned media and media-adjacent types who continue to fail to see that this magazine cover is very obviously satirical are lost, utterly lost to the throes of your own humourlessness. Maclean’s is one of Canada’s few self-aware titles, and it has always enjoyed an arch, dark sense of humour. Not everybody gets it, but the types of people who are reading this newsletter really ought to have been able to spot the gag.

Maclean’s put these stodgy conservative premiers in matching suits, lined them up in a Sopranos pose and headlined it The Resistance. Look at their faces. LOOK AT THEM. The cover pokes fun at the premiers, and Maclean’s is in on its own joke.

Your Line editors can faithfully report that the Maclean’s editors were laughing, laughing hysterically when they put this cover together. Tears of dark salty joy literally streamed down their faces as they lovingly crafted this edition and watched as their tiny ugly bird leaped from its nest and soared to heights previously unknown.

Further, more than two years after publication, even the people who didn’t get it are still re-making this cover into some A+ meme art.

We at The Line are willing to call it. The Resistance cover was the best, most subversive, most iconic cover in Maclean’s modern history. We even think it tops Bonhomme. It is a delight, and we will love it forever.

Round Up:

  • Andrew Potter kicked off our week in style with a column noting that our weird habit of hedging our bets with China is dumb. It noted that we were still trying to broker deals with the hegemon in the middle of trying to negotiate for the freedom of two citizens that have kidnapped in retaliation over the affair of Meng Wanzhou. And as the western alliance begins to awaken from the daze of history, it should become glaringly apparent what a mistake that has been. Of course, this column earned critique from some interesting quarters.

  • Rookie writer Rishi Maharaj put many more experienced columnists to shame with his first outing: a lively rant about the incredible incompetence of the CRA. Our revenue service has become so broken as to be basically inaccessible. The CRA has no physical presence. Its phone lines routinely refuse to connect you at all, simply saying that all queues are full.

  • Predicting the aforementioned SCC ruling on carbon taxes, Ken Boessenkool had this little gem all lined up for us on Thursday. Now that the carbon tax is legal, and inevitable, he suggested that Ontario premier Doug Ford embrace that shit and rig it to his own electoral advantage. Good deeds do not live in the hearts of men.

  • Lastly, lawyer Michael Spratt lays out the results of a blistering report on the RCMP’s handling of the investigation of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man, who was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range. Spratt noted: “The CRCC found that the RCMP illegally detained the young Indigenous men who were with Boushie when he was killed. The CRCC also found that the RCMP searched the Boushie residence without any judicial authorization or legal authority. The CRCC further called out the RCMP for its cold-hearted conduct when they informed Boushie’s mother that her son had died. The RCMP displayed little humanity and a lot of racism when they dealt with the grieving mother. Immediately after informing her that her son was dead, the RCMP questioned Boushie’s mom about her sobriety, smelled her breath, and questioned her credibility.”

All in all, we think we had a pretty strong week! And with that, friends, we at The Line eagerly await our denouncement by the Quebec National Assembly.

The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com