Last week I attended my third and last national student journalism (NASH) conference as a member of Canada University Press (CUP). I have to admit that my seasoned and dour self finds each conference less legendary than the one before, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the wonder of witnessing more than 400 student journalists destroy themselves over the four night of debauchery. We are young, after all, and many of us are rather stupid, and NASH is not for the faint of heart.
I’ve written before about these conferences, here, and indirectly here. I’ve discussed the friction between my background in ethics culture, and the rampant success culture of many who attend the conference. I’ve discussed the rigid intolerance of many of the participants, and talked about the pressure to conform exerted by presenters and audiences alike. I’ve analyzed and analyzed and analyzed…
So I’m going to skip all that and move to the last night of this latest installment, during which, as a grand finale, a hall full of well-lubricated student journalists were regaled by Sun Media’s own Ezra Levant.
It was an occasion without precedent in my experience at NASH. Various CUP papers had previously called out the conference for inviting Levant (let alone paying him to speak), and one organizer’s statement had been released defending the choice. “In my experience, keynotes veer in two directions: an inspiring success story or grappling with change,” argues the organizer. “Not a single NASH keynote I’ve seen has challenged my views of journalism or prompted me to speak up.”
Levant prompted the conference to speak up like nobody before him, and I’m pretty sure that many felt he’d challenged more than just their views on journalism. He began with some comments about being the only editor in Canada to publish the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammud, and continued on similarly controversial topics all night long. He spoke about the problematic nature of ‘hate speech’ definitions in Canada, and the subjective nature of cultural outrage, shocking me with how closely his argument mirrored one I’d echoed myself. “If you set a precedent of shutting up those that offend you,” said Levant, “I promise that one day that law will be used against you.” A few minutes later he infused some religious imagery, warning us not to “bow down to the false god of hate speech, and the right not to be offended.”
Abruptly he shifted to direct challenges, and I faced a moral quandary. Levant wanted us to choose ideological sides on flashpoint debates by raising our hands in support of one stance or another, and he wanted us to do it in full view of our peers. Forget “safe space” rhetoric, he wanted us to judge each other
What Levant tried to show us through a simple polling exercise was that our group’s comfortable assumptions of internal diversity were an illusion. He pointed out that we were still mostly white, mostly well off, mostly white collar. He pointed out that few of us had worked a factory or manufacturing job. Then he started asking ideological questions, and I realized that I was about to need either extreme bravery or insanity, or a mix of both.
“All of you who believe in the theory of anthropogenic global warming, raise your hand,” said Levant, and 99 percent of the room raised their hand. One bright young lady even sought to correct him, yelling “It’s not a theory. It’s a fact!” from the back of the room. At that, some of us winced, but not all.
“All who don’t, raise your hand,” said Levant, and nobody raised their hand. So far I was safe, but things were about to get ugly.
“All who believe the legalization of gay marriage is a good thing, raise your hand,” said Levant, and 99 percent of the room raised their hand. Luckily, because of his phrasing, I could raise my hand as well.
“All who don’t, raise your hand,” said Levant, and nobody put up their hand. The thought police carefully scrutinized the room, looking for ideological pariahs, but not even my two evangelical friends from out east were brave enough to identify themselves.
“All who are Pro-Life, raise your hand,” said Levant. Oh crap, I thought, and snuck my hand into the air.
Luckily I was at the back of the room so few could immediately see me, but as heads turned and necks craned I became an object of intense speculation. There were only three of us stupid enough to raise our hands, although I had another friend admit afterward that she’d been intimidated into not making it four.
I’m gonna be crucified, I thought, they’re staring at me the way Neanderthal man stared at the Cro-Magnon . But I kept my hand in the air for the same reason I’d gone to sessions wearing a hat practically made from an American flag: authenticity is its own act of rebellion.
Levant laughed at us. “Canada is split 40-40-20 on abortion, and you guys are split 400 to 3. You call that diversity?” he asked.
The room was sizzling, people were leaving, the air was incendiary. Another drunk young woman tossed a fiery one-fingered salute in Levant’s direction as she stormed out of the hall. Journalists hissed and seethed, and finally, almost unbelievably…
Levant opened the floor for questions.
There was a mad rush for the two mics. Twenty people or so lined up in the first wave, seeking to match wits with the most abrasive TV personality in Canadian politics. The room went silent as the first student approached the mike, attempted to level his pistol, and promptly shot his own toes off.
Granted he was articulate, funny, even a little self-deprecating at first, but he’d forgotten the golden rule of the Q&A. His job was simple, to ask a flipping question, and yet somehow he couldn’t managed to end any of his statements with a squiggle and a dot. Instead he talked and talked and jabbed and jabbed, and then Levant cut him off.
Don’t try to outshout Ezra Levant, is what I learned from that exchange. The student whined and pleaded and whined some more as Levant’s “Blah blah blah” drowned out his voice, but the room had come to hear Levant, not some jumped-up journo. He stubbornly continued to shout even after the mics were turned off, driven into farce by his own sense of self-importance. Yet Levant had already won.
Another student stepped up, and, incredibly, began addressing her questions to her fellow journalists rather than the speaker himself. “Are we really all rich and privileged?” she asked, “Raise your hand if you have student loans. I’m thirty thousand in debt.” It was a preposterous argument, and Levant, shark that he is, stepped in to call her on it.
She retaliated, he rebutted. Hasty words were exchanged, and she eventually claimed that she could serve the Canadian public better as a media member than he. “Go for it,” Levant volleyed back, “I’m sure there’s an enormous demand for more shouty women’s studies majors on TV.”
It was a beautiful, inflammatory moment as hundreds of harsh inhalations resounded through the hall. No one was allowed to say things like that, not in this bastion of liberal progressiveness, but Levant said it.
With a mic in his hand, he was untouchable and he knew it.
It was a strange thing to see the soul of NASH so angry and confuddled. The conference is usually a bubble of self-perpetuating ideology where students come together to pat each other on the back and remind one another that it is the student body, rather than student journalism, which is boorish and crude and hopelessly bigoted. Levant arrived like a conservative juggernaut in a crystal cathedral, loud, violent and unstoppable. He absorbed the petty stones and arrows with impunity, and hurled baffling logic into the masses before him. It was glorious because it should have been impossible, and yet one man stood against many and somehow emerged victorious.
Not that Levant should knighted or canonized, or whatever. He has his own laws and codes, responds to rudeness with greater rudeness, and decorum with some measure of the same. Yet it is also obvious that he likes the chaos and the outrage, and in that I disagree with him. It is better to be meek and forgettable and soften someone’s heart than become a vitriolic legend that blinds opponents with their own anger. Many student left more partisan, less open, and more reactionary than when they’d arrived, and Levant seemed to accept that as the necessary cost of his own self-righteousness.
Eighty percent of what Levant said I can stand behind, but that last twenty, the joy he takes in riling his opponents into frothing at the mouth, that I do not condone. Levant makes for good television and bad politics. He is too smart, too confident, and too secure in his ivory tower. And ultimately, the rabble he demeans will find a way to pull him down. Time and numbers are on their side.
This was my third and final NASH. I am relieved that such tests are behind me, but I am also saddened that I may never again see such trials and tribulations, such miracles and wonders, as Ezra Levant walking into a room full of student journalists, and proving to the majority that they are yet of mortal inconsequence.
As to the quiet minority in that room, I will not presume to judge.