My photo is all wrong and should be changed, one reader wrote several months ago. He said the picture should show me looking like Capt. Ahab from Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”
The letter-writer came to this opinion after reading a column in which I wrote that the then-MP Peter Penashue had forgotten how dams destroy caribou habitat.
“Johansen’s rambling re-hash of obvious political cleavages in Labrador was unified by the odd assumption that every synapse and step of Peter Penashue regarding the caribou hunt is driven by sinister calculations,” the letter reads. “Like Ahab in ‘Moby Dick,’ Johansen gives his white whale nowhere to go.”
I’ve never been sure if Peter appreciates being called a big white whale, but I’m hardly someone who can criticize another writer for playing with hyperbole — it being one of my favourite toys.
I understand how a commentator’s harrying of a politician can be stretched into the whaler’s relentless hunt for Moby Dick, although I’m glad my story hasn’t ended with Penashue dragging me to my death under ocean waves.
Most letters to the editor don’t demand a response, but some do, like one from a Nalcor vice-president a few weeks ago and now another from “Francis.”
Francis, of no known gender or location, commented online that I’m blaming the wrong people for the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.
“Get your facts straight,” Francis wrote. “This is not Christians putting down over non-Christians. These are atheists persecuting all believers. … The media is focused on blaming Christians for the PQ’s charter, paying most attention to Muslims and not pointing out the real atheist culprits.”
First, what Francis calls atheism is more like anti-Catholicism run amok, something born from the oppression the church helped inflict on Quebec for generations. The motivation for denying Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and, yes, Christians the right to wear religious symbols and clothing has little to do with not believing in God and much more to do with a thirst for revenge — so maybe Quebec Premier Pauline Marois should beware of becoming Capt. Ahab, in case her quest ends in self-destruction.
The main problem with the charter is not its motivation, but what it does. Even if the Parti Québécois believed the charter will cause lollipops, gumdrops and ice-cream sandwiches to waft gently from the sky, it would still be a bad thing. It’s bad in France, where these same laws restricting these same freedoms are being extended beyond the public service, and it will be bad in Quebec as well. It’s dangerous to Canadian democracy.
The charter attacks at least two fundamental rights. Citizens will be denied freedom of speech, the right to express their beliefs and opinions through the clothing they wear or the symbols they display. What’s next to be banned? Perhaps T-shirts with slogans and badges with peace signs will bring fines or imprisonment.
The charter is also an attack against freedom of religion, which includes my right to be an atheist. The Quebec government wants to control how people observe their beliefs, forbidding them to follow the practices of their faith, even if they do no harm whatsoever to anyone else.
Suppressing that freedom for some takes it away from everyone else. It ceases to be a right for all, becoming merely a privilege for a few, and privileges are easily taken away. Now it’s expressive clothing that will be outlawed. Next they may forbid an ostentatious written expression of belief — so perhaps anyone who criticizes the charter will face criminal prosecution.
Before Capt. Ahab gets too obsessed with his self-defeating quest for revenge — sorry, I mean before Premier Marois and the PQ stake their minority government on the hope Quebecers will support their oppressive policies — they should maybe recall that it wasn’t just the church that Quebecers had to overthrow during their Quiet Revolution. The provincial government worked hand-in-hand with the overbearing religious authorities.
Maybe in the eyes of Quebec citizens forced from their jobs and publicly insulted, Marois won’t look so much like Ahab, as like former premier Maurice Duplessis. Given the resentment that lingers long after his reign, the current premier might prefer to be remembered as a crazy sea captain.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.