In Defence Of Ad Hominem

An open letter to Michael Enright and those who tell us how not to respond to racism.

Michael Enright
℅ CBC Media Centre
PO Box 500 Station A
Toronto, ON  M5W 1E6

28 September, 2017

Dear Mr. Enright,

In your recent appearance on the CANADALAND podcast, you referred to an article I wrote on Conrad Black as a “journalistic mugging,” saying that the proper response to Black’s false statements about First Nations people should have been to fact-check them. There are a lot of unspoken premises to that advice that I find deeply insulting.

It’s not just me who gets this advice. From the NFL to Jagmeet Singh, there is no shortage of people who have lately been lectured on how we should respond to racism, almost always from people who have no personal experience of it.

You went on one of Canada’s most popular podcasts to tell me why I’m wrong. Allow me a few minutes to explain why you, and those like you, were wrong to do that.

Some quick background for others who may be reading this letter. Conrad Black has published many articles, and at least one book, in which he describes First Nations people as violent, “Stone Age” primitives who were saved by Western Civilization, and he has concluded that rather than expressing grievances over our treatment, we ought to express gratitude. Black has presented as fact a host of easily disprovable claims about First Nations people, and has usually done so in articles that had nothing to do with history. My reply to his most recent iteration — an article berating First Nations people because a non-Native teachers’ union condemned the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald — was to show Conrad Black what his own legacy would be. Having recently (and for the second time) seen an obituary with my own name at the top, I can testify to the clarifying power of it.

Returning then to your comments, there are two assumptions I could make about what you said.

The first assumption is that you were unaware of the many articles and social media posts replying to Conrad Black. Those writers did just as you proposed — they provided facts to disprove Black’s terrible claims about First Nations people. In fact, some of the comments of Black’s that appeared in my CANADALAND article came from Black’s dismissive responses to those more thoughtful writers.

Being unaware of those articles, I can understand how one might assume that all that is needed is a thorough and well-researched rebuttal, and the issue would be resolved. Here is a short list of some of the replies to Black on this issue that have appeared in the press (a list of social media responses would naturally be much longer):

The Globe and Mail
“Conrad Black’s Rise to Greatness is an ambitious, if flawed, chronicle of our country”

NOW Magazine
“Truth, reconciliation and genocide denial”

National Post
“Conrad Black’s put-down of Indigenous people unhelpful in current climate”

The Ottawa Citizen
“Conrad Black’s strong biases are evident in his latest book”

The Hamilton Spectator
“The value of indigenous people”

National Post
“Not genocide? Ask the Beothuks”

And from your own organization:

CBC News
“Conrad Black’s history of Canada: Arrogant, misinformed and disgraceful”

In spite of all of those thoughtful replies, and the many dozens of others not mentioned above, Conrad Black continued to repeat the same claims, and in spite of his facts being refuted on their own pages, the National Post continued to publish him, apparently, un-fact-checked.

Conrad Black was aware of these replies to him; he wrote a reply of his own. He saw them, he ignored them, and then put pen to paper and wrote the same article, unchanged, again and again, for years.

Should I have written yet another reply to Conrad Black, carefully deconstructing his article, disproving the things which he claims to be facts? I considered it; I’ve written them before on Twitter. But for the time involved, what would be the result? My objective was to get people in the press to look hard at what they allow people like Black to publish. I wanted people to talk about this part of his writing and to see the impact it has on First Nations people.

Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, in a 2015 response to Black, wrote about what he believed was the emotional toll of his words:

As a child of a Holocaust survivor I know what it means to be part of a community that lost more than a generation of its people — my late father was the sole Jewish survivor of his Polish village.

I was brought up in the shadow of the kingdom of death and tragically have a profound personal understanding of its considerable effect.

Consider the impact of having those very events thrown back in your face and denying the very truth of that tragedy.

I can’t add anything of value to what Farber wrote. But I can say something about what it feels like to have people in the press say that it is my job as a First Nations person and sometime writer, to reply civilly to something so powerfully uncivil. It makes me feel like Joseph Merrick, better known as the “Elephant Man.” In the most famous scene from the movie about his life, Merrick is chased through a train station, harassed by children, and then an angry mob of good, respectable citizens corners him. With them surrounding him, he roars back: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a … man!”

The feelings of First Nations people are often stated in the superlative because the treatment of us in this country is often superlatively bad; and what is genuine to us, sounds like silly hyperbole to non-Natives, and so is laughed away. Do not laugh this one away. You and your friends in the media too often become that mob, and the impact you have on me — and I think many other First Nations people — every time you tell us to debate the worth of our race, is to make us feel subhuman.

The value of First Nations people as humans should never be open to debate. To say that I have a duty to reply to these claims of Black’s requires you to make a premise out of his conclusion — that our humanity is debatable.

I will not debate the humanity of First Nations people with anyone. I will not defend it, I will not disprove those people that say we don’t belong in this world, I will not ever again. It is not an open question, and no matter how florid the text that surrounds the proposition, it is never civil.

On the podcast, you said my error was in not mentioning the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or the First Nations people who saved Canada from the Americans in the War of 1812. Is it my responsibility to prove the value of First Nations people? Do our rights come from our good deeds, or do they come from the fact that we are humans and we live in this country? I’m not Haudenosaunee, I’m Salish. Our people had nothing to do with the War of 1812. Absent the good deeds of the Mohawks, are we entitled to less respect? Fewer rights?

Ask yourself this: if everything Conrad Black said about us were true, would that justify Residential Schools? Would it justify turning a blind eye to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women? Would it mean that we alone in Canada don’t need clean water to live?

I would imagine your answer to those is “no.”

If the answer to those is so obvious, then the problem really isn’t Conrad Black’s so-called facts, but the fact that they are presented in a newspaper at all. What does it say that when a First Nations activist asks for better housing, the National Post responds by giving Black a space to say that our ancestors lived in the Stone Age?

It says that the problem isn’t facts, and so the proper reply isn’t fact-checking.

The problem is that too many people in Canada don’t see us as Canadians and are reaching for any excuse, factual or not, to deny us our rights as citizens, and as human beings.

Is the reply then to say that they’re wrong and that we are people? As I’ve said above, “no,” and in fact, “hell no.” In these cases, attacking the message is wrong, because the message is an insult — the proper reply is to attack the messenger, the person giving the insult.

You accused me of “journalistic mugging.” That assumes that Conrad Black was an innocent person going about his business, not bothering me, not doing anything that would provoke an attack.

Conrad Black is not a journalistic innocent, he’s a journalistic Westboro Baptist Church — i.e., the creeps who protest outside funerals and insult the mourners. When the Westboro Baptist Church holds up a sign that says “God Hates F**s,” do you really expect people to fact-check them?

The best replies to them are from those that attack them, block them, use humour tinged with some aggression to shut them down. This picture below, this is my inspiration:

The second, alternate, assumption I could make is that you were aware of the many replies to Conrad Black. This would mean that you were also aware of how ineffective they were, how quickly they were forgotten, and how easily he ignored them. It would mean you were engaged in the purest form of what is now known as “tone policing” — that is, delegitimizing any form of minority protest that you can’t easily ignore, because the “tone” of the protest upset your sensitivities more than the racism that was being protested.

If that is what you meant, then to the “journalistic mugging” insult you hurled at me, you may as well have added “son of a bitch” — the phrase spoken by Donald Trump in his attack on the mostly Black NFL players who chose to kneel in protest during the singing of the American national anthem.

Those slurs come from a rich tradition that is practised today by Donald Trump, Barbara Kay, Ken Whyte, Andrew Coyne, and many other establishment figures in Canada’s media. These are people who, as you did in your interview, have taken it upon themselves to talk down to minorities, tell us how to behave, and direct us to what you consider to be more effective forms of protest. But effective for whom is an open question.

Writing on Conrad Black’s legacy, I am told, was wrong. Donald Trump has said that it’s wrong to protest by taking a knee during the anthem, and in fact wrong to protest if you are successful and a minority. Barbara Kay recently wrote in the National Post about her encounter with a First Nations activist who made a joke about taking revenge on pilgrims. Those jokes are off the table because, as the headline put it, “Joking about roasting white racists isn’t a way to advance reconciliation.” Andrew Coyne had advice for Jagmeet Singh on how to deal with racists. NDP leadership candidate Singh shouted over a protester who was accusing him of supporting Sharia — saying to the protester: “We love you … we support you.”

Coyne’s advice?

During the Nazi occupation of his country, King Christian X of Denmark wrote that if the Jews of his country were made to wear the star, “we [Danes] would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.” To Andrew Coyne, though, this sentiment would have been improved upon if the King had instead said, “I’m not a Jew, but most Jews aren’t bad either.”

What’s left? If there is an outrage, we shouldn’t take a knee; and there are many in the pages of the Sun chain who say we also shouldn’t stand at a barricade, march on a street, sit in at a building, or lay down while being arrested — it’s enough to make you think that there’s no proper way to position a non-white body that the tone police wouldn’t find offensive. We shouldn’t shout forgiveness at those who transgress against us. We shouldn’t make jokes. Instead we should calmly, quietly, civilly, and politely reply with an education.

In truth, these quiet forms of protest are seldom effective, which I think is a large part of the appeal to their proponents. Almost by definition, most of those who speak and act so harshly against us don’t listen to us. I suspect many are like Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak, who said “I don’t need any more education” in response to the Residential School survivors who offered to calmly, quietly, civilly, and politely explain to her why her comments praising Residential Schools were wrong and hateful.

During your interview, CANADALAND host Jesse Brown talked about First Nations radio columnist Jesse Wente’s emotional CBC appearance decrying the labour that is forced on minorities in the public sphere. He described the exhaustion and frustration many of us feel when called upon to refute the same racist talking points year after year after year. While not acknowledging the emotional cost of that, you did take the opportunity to contrast what I wrote with the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. You said that this labour is what Coates does, what he and other Black thinkers have to do.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a hero of mine — so much so that I’ve actually read him (and can correctly pronounce his name when I casually drop it into conversation to bolster my arguments).

He said this about the labour that you say he is obliged to perform:

So often I am asked — as all black writers are asked — how their message might be packaged to appeal to those who have no appetite for what we are saying. The interlocutor is usually a person of good faith, who is in agreement, but the question is always a trap. Any writer who takes as their starting place any doubt as to their own humanity, or the humanity of their subject, has already lost. The real questions, the questions in that writer’s heart, are never explored. And instead they are stuck answering the same set of questions that they’ve, long ago, resolved. For black writers, this is a formula for never evolving, for writing the same thing over and over. For black writers the danger is having their work devolve into workshop on racial sensitivity.

In short, he said, perform that labour and lose your soul.

To respond to Conrad Black, and those like him, in the way you propose is humiliating. I know, because I did so on Twitter after the article came out. Treating a detestable insult as legitimate is poison for the soul. And all the time spent putting it together, doing research, digging things up from my half-remembered archeology classes, garnered nothing but a sneering tweet back from Black himself, another handful of hardline racists insulting me, and dead silence from everyone else in the press.


I wrote that thread, in the style you say is best, and prior to your interview on CANADALAND. Would you have me write it again? Should I turn whatever writing career I have into Coates’s racial-sensitivity workshop? How many times do I need to cover the same points?

When some racist berates me for not paying taxes because I’m a First Nations person (FYI: I pay a lot of taxes) for the twentieth time, is the only acceptable response still fact-checking and education? What about the fiftieth? The hundredth? How much patience am I supposed to have?

I can tell you, somewhere after the fortieth time someone said that to me, I just replied by calling them a loser. I’m sure that’s not cricket, by your code. But for me, I think the person in need of shaming is the one spewing the racism, not the one responding to it — though of course that’s not how it works.

I don’t know if you are one of those tone police who is looking to silence minority voices, or if you’re just ignorant of how many of us have spent countless futile hours following your advice. But whichever you are, you’re wrong.

I do not feel obliged to write in the way you demand, because I think giving in to those demands requires my abasement because of my identity as a First Nations person. Think back to the Elephant Man — I’m not going to willingly be cornered like he was, and forced to defend the worth of my race to good, respectable people like you. And shame on you for asking.


Robert Jago
Montreal/Tiotia:ke, Quebec

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