Giving Shakedown another shake

Month in, month out, the LRC is proving itself as an indispensible venue for the discussion of serious books and ideas in the country. The June issue has, among other things: a long and challenging essay by Amir Attaran about Canada’s newfound status as one of the “bad kids” on the world block and a very generous review of Filthy Lucre written by Bruce Little (who we still miss from the business pages of the Globe).

But for me, the centrepiece of the issue is Mark Freiman’s informed and nicely written review of Shakedown. As the title of the review suggests, Freiman has problems with Ezra Levant’s penchant for argument through selective anecdote, for the author’s breezy insouciance about discrimination being a thing of the past, and for the raw self-servingness of much of the book.

But (you knew there had to be a But):

It is undoubtedly true, as demonstrated by the baleful consequences of the anecdote-based assault during the Reagan and Bush eras on all aspects of financial and environmental regulation, that argument by anecdote is logically suspect. Nevertheless, anecdotes can be telling. Caveats about the representative nature of the stories Levant tells and quibbles about details he has left out (and there are plenty of significant facts he omits in his stories) can only get you so far. Levant’s anecdotes make plenty of important points that simply cannot and should not be ignored.

As Freiman goes on to argue, for all the book’s faults, Levant is on to something that should concern all of us. He concedes many of Levant’s substantive claims — about the lack of proper quality control of personnel and the failure to properly weed out frivolous cases, especially at the provincial tribunals, about the perverse incentives about a system that pays for the complainant’s full costs but forces the respondent to pay his or her own costs, even if the respondent wins, and so on.

And so Freiman concludes that we should be skeptical about many of the details of the book, and also of Levant’s suggestion that we simply blow the HRT system up. But, again with the but:

When he is not doing his Rush Limbaugh imitation, Levant provides the reader with a good warm-up for the serious intellectual work needed to address the issues that arise in the adjudication and enforcement of human rights claims. He’ll get your heart pumping and your faculties ready to be challenged. Just don’t mistake the warm-up for the real work or you are likely to miss the whole point of the exercise.

To summarise the review:  Shakedown is frequently biased, unfair, and not always to be trusted. But nevertheless, the author is helping start a conversation that we very much need to have.

It all sounds so very familiar.

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