One word: disconnected. I read in the comments section of my newspaper this morning that Jacques Villeneuve had been “courageous” to speak his mind about the student strike. Courageous? How so? Because he received a few moronic and predictably empty threats? Villeneuve, let us recall, rehashed most of the Charest gouvernment’s rhetoric about how the protests that have been going on for months now represent a threat “the way we do things here.” In other words, you get a say on how the country is run once every four years.
I disagree, but yet I just can’t seem to care. Many people took Villeneuve’s remarks to heart, and I suppose I can understand why. He’s a former F1 champion whom many Quebecers identify with because he was born in Quebec and because they cherish fond memories of his father, the late great Gilles Villeneuve, who died tragically on the race track. And I suppose I understand why, in the conjuncture which combines the student strike and the Grand Prix, a journalist would think that asking a former F1 driver to comment on the strike sounds like a plan.
I don’t mind that Villeneuve’s opinion is completely contrary to mine on the topic of tuition hikes and protesting. And while I, had I been in his shoes, would have had the common sense to answer with the all-too-common response “no comment,” I guess he felt compelled to speak his mind. But this saga shows there is a widespread problem in Western civilization. We tend to give excessive credence and weight to every thought aired out publicly by a celebrity. Like Fox News presenting Mel Gibson like someone qualified to discuss the legality and the morality of the late Terry Schiavo’s euthanasia, we brandish a microphone in Villeneuve’s face and ask him what he thinks of the ongoing protest.
But a significant question seems to have escaped everyone’s mind. What the hell does it matter what Villeneuve thinks? As someone who, as it has been pointed out many times in the last few days, grew up in Monaco and lives in Switzerland, the silver spoon-fed Villeneuve is quite plainly a man speaking of something he clearly doesn’t understand. And now, lots of people recognize this and are turning on him. Why it ever took so long is something people will have to explain to me. Here is a man who has nothing Canadian or Quebecer about him, save for being born in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu to Quebecer parents. That’s already a lot, you’ll reply, except he makes a liar out of a very famous saying. In Villeneuve’s case, you can take the boy out of St-Jean, AND you most certainly can take St-Jean out of the boy. Or perhaps it was never in him to begin with.
Far be it from me to say that he can’t have a valid opinion because he’s basically a foreigner, but what his comment showed was that he doesn’t have anything new, interesting or intelligent to say about the conflict. Thus, his opinion on this most divisive topic is frankly of no importance. The importance it has is the one we gave it through our predictably epidermic response.
But why the surprise? Villeneuve is, and always has been, an individual who is far too aware of who butters his bread. My lasting memory of him remains the time when he publicly stated that he believed tobacco advertising should be legal, smack on the heels of the RJR-McDonald ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court. His team’s main sponsor at that time? Canadian tobacco company Rothman’s-Benston & Hedges.
He seems to think that the protests are one colossal error in judgement. Will it turn out that way? I don’t think so, but many take Villeneuve’s word for it. I cannot say I completely blame them because, as far as errors in judgement are concerned, Jacky Boy is certainly no stranger to them. There was the time when he signed on to the ill-fated BAR team to please his friend, no wait, former friend Craig Pollock. And then there was his restaurant he meant as “pied d’à terre” in Montreal; that baby didn’t last long either. And when he was banished to F1 hell for a time, he thought it wise to enter a different kind of hell: a hell reserved exclusively for the very, very, very bad music records. He sold a mighty 78 of them, which as far as I go, is about 85 too much.
I’m not so much mad at him as I feel bad for him. In addition to behaving as though this is still 1997 (his championship year), he showed just how disconnected he is to, well, everything when comics and notorious pranksters “Les Justiciers Masqués” prank-called him, mimicking Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After they admitted they were joking, his response was this: “I don’t think this is very funny. You’re mocking the institution that is the Prime Minister by impersonating him.” I wish I was surprised. The Justiciers best expressed theirs and everyone else’s disappointment: “So pompous. So arrogant. So disconnected.” Disconnected, that word again. Let him say what he wills. I couldn’t care less.
I wish I could be as detached about our next foot-in-the-mouth moment: that of Quebec Cultural Minister Christine St-Pierre. One’s politics can be to the right or the left, one can be against the tuition hikes or in favour of them. However, as I have said in my previous post, her reaction to Fred Pellerin’s decision not to accept the National Order of Quebec in these troubled times (he has worn the red square publicly on several occasions) stank of ignorance, incompetence and/or bad faith.
When asked about Pellerin, this was her response: “But we know what the red square means: it means intimidation, violence; it also means preventing people from studying.” Well, first of all… no. The overwhelming majority of people who protest do so peacefully, and their pacifism does not come in contradiction with wearing the red square. Morever, as Marc Cassivi of La Presse writes, this is the sort of binary reasoning George W. Bush would be proud of. His famous line “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists” stays fresh in my mind, and I was instantly reminded of it when I read St-Pierre’s preposterous, simplistic, polarizing claim. I would pay good money to know how she can look herself in the mirror as a former journalist after having said such a thing.
To spit such nonsense is unworthy of both a journalist and a government minister. In my opinion, she has caused irreparable damage to her credibility as a minister. And how bad a target she chose as well! Pellerin’s opinions are clear, but he is not the boisterous type and his explanation was the antithesis of aggressive militantism. He emphasized almost excessively how honoured he was, how much it meant to him to be offered this title, yet none of it stopped St-Pierre from coming down on him like a ton of bricks out of sheer miscalculated political opportunism.
On Tuesday, she missed a chance to set things right by sinking even deeper into this cesspool of opportunistic nonsense she has gotten herself into. The opposition accused her of attacking artists’ right to free speech, a claim which she predictably denied. Never mind the fact that a group of artists have now written a letter demanding an apology which they’re afraid to sign with their full title for fear that their grants and subsidies will take an axe job. (You may support their effort by sending an email with only your name on it at this address before Wednesday: email@example.com).
I hope that people can look at the response she gave at the National Assembly, see past the demagoguery and the spin to realize how profoundly inadequate her answer to the incoming criticism is. This is what she said: “We have all seen student protests which, SOMETIMES, have led to disgraceful scenes, scenes of intimidation, scenes of which the media were witnesses and images that have been broadcast on television. These ways of doing things are inadmissible, and that’s what I meant to say when I spoke of the red square.” I wouldn’t dare claim to know what she “meant” to say, but I know that’s not what she said.
She went on to say that those who believe in Quebec’s democratic principles would dissociate themselves from the acts of violence and vandalism that have been committed in the name of the students’ cause. Simplistic, but OK, for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll play. It still doesn’t justify her words. It doesn’t explain how they might be true and/or appropriate. It doesn’t validate her bogus claim that the red square is a synonym of support for violence and intimidation (no matter how hard the government tries to portray it as such). It is merely an attempt to distract us from the truth: her response was nothing but a series of shabby rhetorical gymnastics designed to mitigate the astonshing lack of nuance of her original words while weaseling out of the obligation to apologize.
Well, this is one blog she has not fooled. Her dilemma remains whole. She can admit that her words overstepped the boundaries of her thoughts, which happens to all of us every once in a while, and apologize. If she didn’t mean what she said, she must apologize. Her words are too serious. The only other choice is for her to reiterate her original words, in all their cynicism, bad faith and intellectual laziness. It’s one or the other, black or white. In this regard, she is getting a taste of her boss’ medicine.
An overwhelming majority of the artists Christine St-Pierre’s ministry oversees supports the students. This fact does not mean she should be forced to agree with said artists, but it should serve as an incentive not to insult their intelligence or that of the general population, for that matter.