’John Greyson and Tarek Loubani were lucky. I wasn’t’

Barbara Amiel on luck, both fortunate and unfortunate
Jon Blacker / Reuters

Lucky John Greyson and Dr. Tarek Loubani. Obviously, not for spending 51 days in an Egyptian jail, where they claimed to have been beaten horribly and, knowing something of justice in the Arab world, I don’t doubt it. But lucky they were jailed by the military they despise and not the Muslim Brotherhood. Could have been either, depending on when they were in Ramses Square administering to the wounded. If Mohamed Morsi had been in control, they might still have been beaten brutally, but probably first stripped naked on the street. Lucky, and this is ironic, given they are two left-wing chaps, Conservatives Stephen Harper and John Baird were in office and really worked hard for their release.

I don’t want to sound retrospectively envious, well actually I am, but when I was imprisoned in Mozambique in pretty brutal conditions, Canada refused to lift a finger. Thankfully, the British and the Americans negotiated my release. Then-minister for external affairs Mark MacGuigan, a member of the decidedly left-wing Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, told the House of Commons that while the conditions in which I was held were “undoubtedly very bad,” there was no reason to protest my 11 days in Machava prison, even though no government or lawyer had been notified of my detention. What was done to me would be done to any citizen of Mozambique charged with “the same offence”—which was no offence.

True, arbitrary imprisonment is how totalitarianism treats its people, but that’s hardly an excuse for Canada to disclaim me. I had been admitted to Mozambique on my Canadian passport and was not charged with any offence—until post facto, the sainted Barbara Frum put on air a spokesperson from Mozambique’s ruling Communist FRELIMO party who told CBC listeners that I had tried to steal American Express cheques. I was back in Toronto recuperating from malaria and typhoid, but couldn’t reply to this calumny, as Barbara didn’t bother asking me on the program.

“It’s really obvious we made mistakes,” said the two released Canadian pro-Palestinian activists who, not surprisingly, both have university teaching connections. I made a pretty obvious mistake, too, by going into Mozambique during its civil war. But when a person puts his hand into a lion’s cage, you first get him out of danger and give the lectures later. Palestinian refugee Loubani and activist filmmaker Greyson both have wretched views about Israel (the zeitgeist’s current scapegoat) and are supporters of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement. Likely, they were enjoying a bit of tourist-protesting, but when Canadians abroad are jailed without charges, their political views are irrelevant.

Author David Gilmour is lucky, too. Gilmour is Pelham Edgar visiting professor at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, where he teaches literature. You wouldn’t catch me in a pronouncement on anything with gender-ism lurking in it, but I am a hardened warrior of the culture wars. Gilmour was interviewed about books he liked. When he said, “Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature,” I put him in his 60s. He explained he “can only teach stuff I love.” When his giggly interviewer asked about female writers he loved, instead of going into fetal position and naming authors from Aphra Behn to J.K. Rowling plus every female in Canada that has ever published a pamphlet, never mind a book, he said, “I’m not interested in teaching books by women . . . except for Virginia Woolf [but] I find she doesn’t actually work. She’s too sophisticated . . . What I’m good at is guys.”

Thankfully, my English tutor at the University of Toronto never chatted to me about “guys,” but leave that aside. Unaware he was being led into U of T’s zeitgeist bog, he kept going: “. . . serious heterosexual guys. Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Chehkov. Tolstoy, Henry Miller, uh, Philip Roth.” Absolutely nothing exceptional in those remarks. If teaching authors I love, I’d stick to Camus, Orwell, Koestler, Kafka, probably Gogol and poetry by Yeats, Eliot and Shakespeare. There are loads of gifted female writers I adore, but for me, they are not quite among the greats—Edith Wharton comes close. The response was predictable: “I would not ordinarily do this,” blogged associate professor of English Holger Syme, but managed to leapfrog this modest inhibition to pour dung on Gilmour, ending, “David Gilmour does not think or talk like a professor of literature”—helluva advertisement to listen to Gilmour rather than Syme. Victoria College had glottal stop. Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize was waved liked a truncheon over Gilmour’s head. The University of Toronto’s Paul Stevens, the acting chair of the university’s English department, posted a single paragraph containing “appalled,” “deeply upset,” “travesty of all we stand for,” “ill-informed and offensive views,” and emphasized he would “be pursuing the matter further today.”

But Gilmour was lucky. Lucky because on Oct. 31 of this year, David Naylor exits his post as president of the University of Toronto. So a bit of a lame duck and though pursued, he refrained from action on the Gilmour debacle. Over his term, Naylor has presided over the worst aspects of the zeitgeist, including the nastiest outbursts of campus anti-Semitism I have ever seen and the nurture of Israel Apartheid Week. Naylor is no child of the zeitgeist, he is the zeitgeist.

Perhaps the luckiest thing that happened to Alice Munro was that she had to drop out of university and breathe the air of real jobs, not the zeitgeist. Her eye looks at the commonplace and sees the extraordinary. I have eight well-thumbed books by Alice Munro plus a couple of biographies, but she wouldn’t be on the list of writers I would teach—because, while I deeply admire her writing, I don’t feel passionately about her world. I rather think Alice would understand this and that, if asked, she’d support Gilmour’s words: They lack her elegance, but are part of the same journey to the heart of human matters—do what we know and do it with passion.