Sometimes I think of Andrew Coyne as our national poster child for intellectual impairment. There are, as we are painfully aware, certainly more obtuse, dim-witted individuals on the national political and journalistic scene than Mr. Coyne. But more of these, such as Margaret Wente for example, are so thick that they are really beneath contempt. And such people only hold their positions of notoriety because they are shills for neo-liberalism and corporatism; if the prevailing social ideology were different, Wente would have trouble getting a writing position on a church newsletter, let alone a job as a nationally syndicated columnist. But Andrew Coyne is a great illustration of Woody Allan's dictum from Annie Hall, that you can be "brilliant and have no idea what it going on." This is Coyne in a nutshell. Like many people Coyne has attained his position in part because he comes from a rich and important Canadian family. But he is by no means incompetent. But his status as a white male from a well-to-do family makes today's Editorial piece extra ironic.
Today Coyne railed against the affirmative action approach toward women in the cabinet taken by Trudeau. The crux of Coyne's argument is summarized when he says that this affirmative action is like "asking the country's interest to take a back seat" to an abstract notion of equal representation.
This is a standard kind of argument against affirmative action, but it is particularly ironic here for a number of reasons. The first, and most obvious, reason is the one I have already mentioned. There are dozens of writers better and more astute than Andrew Coyne in this country, so to suggest that Coyne is a representative of a meritocracy is simply ridiculous. On the contrary, Coyne is an illustration of the fact that when it comes to being a national columnist in Canada's rightwing newspaper field, ideology, connections, and dare I say gender are all more important. And if you don't believe me do a small experiment. Go to your library (if you are fortunate enough to live in a large urban centre with a large central library) and look at as many Canadian newspapers as you can and count the number of bylines and classify them by race and gender. This experiment will demonstrate the shockingly lopsided representation in the national media, particularly when it comes to editorial work. (Incidentally, an interestingly similar experiment is one in which you simply count the number of images of men vs women in the national newspapers. You will see quite quickly just how gender biased our society really is) The fact is that it is ridiculously ironic for someone like Andrew Coyne to champion merit over everything else when you would have to be in a coma to imagine his own status and success is a result simply of merit.
The simple fact is that we don't live in anything like a meritocracy. That is the whole point of affirmative action. The obviousness of this fact is so startling to anyone who is even vaguely analytical is overwhelming. We live in a socioeconomic system that offers very lopsided degrees of education and opportunity at every level. We know this by this simple fact - if we believe that women are equal to men in ability (and I assume that everyone reading this does), then they would already hold more than half of all political jobs since they make up more than 50% of the population. The reason we need affirmative action of any kind is precisely because we don't live in a meritocracy! And if Andrew Coyne's ego wasn't so huge he would understand this very simple fact. But like most people who are successful, Coyne believes that his success is a direct result of his merit.
But I think that an even more important point is that even the notion of merit is much more nuanced than people like Coyne give it credit for, particularly in a field like politics where the criteria of 'merit' are vague and often unquantifiable. Being a 'good' minister does not necessarily mean being an expert or overly familiar with the nuances of a particular issue. God knows if that was the criteria for being an effective government minister then every government would have a hard time creating a cabinet since the real experts almost never run for office in the first place. Thus Coyne would do well to remember that where strict or regulated notions of merit are unclear, the very notion of merit is flexible and redefinable. One might, for instance, think that women or members of a racialized group are more likely to have a better take or grasp on certain portfolios, and they also may be better placed to communicate and deal with the major players in the field. This is a central point, the apparent complexity of which is missed on men like Coyne.
And this brings us to the most inflammatory thing in Coyne's statement above, the implication that ensuring gender parity in the federal cabinet is somehow putting the "country's interest" at risk. But here's the thing: it IS in the country's interest to have gender parity in politics for so many reasons. And it is Coyne's failure to understand this very simple point that makes me say that Andrew Coyne is, sadly, a poster-child for intellectual impairment. If you can't understand how the inequalities in our society are operating, how could you ever be expected to address them???