Barbara Kay: Canada’s Coolest Columnist

2011_Kay_B_Photo_OriginalMy favorite Canadian newspaper is the National Post, and my favorite thing about the National Post is a lady named Barbara Kay.

I don’t think Kay, who lives in Montreal and has contributed a regular column to the Post for ten years, will mind my calling her a lady. She is not the kind of woman to take offense at such a term. Besides, any female can be a woman – Kay truly is a lady, who in her columns deploys sharp logic but never sharp elbows, and whose humor is almost invariably more gentle than stinging. Is it sexist or ageist to say that her voice often comes across as that of a wise and loving mother – not one who nags or hectors or scolds, but one who’s determined to impress upon her wayward children, in as thoughtful and even-tempered a way as possible, that they’ve gone astray?

I’d already written the above when, deciding I should catch up with some of Kay’s latest columns, I read one of them in which, praising the 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she observes that the main character, Mary Richards, “was liberated, but she remained a ‘lady.’” Not a bad way to describe Kay herself. The piece, incidentally, provides a handy précis of Kay’s own sexual politics: while hailing Richards as “a feminist icon” and celebrating Moore’s series for bringing “feminism as a positive force for social change into our living rooms,” Kay reflects that “Mary Richards came of age at a moment when it was possible to embrace the fruits of the reform movement feminism had began as, without succumbing to the bullishness of its increasingly revolutionary tincture.”

Kay draws a useful distinction, moreover, between MTM, which (although set in a TV newsroom) hardly ever mentioned the headlines of the day and remains as fresh as ever, and its contemporary, All in the Family, which was desperately determined to be socially and politically “relevant” and which is now hopelessly dated. Her MTM piece takes much the same form as many a Kay column: it starts out sounding like something that many a journalist might have written – in this case, a fond, chatty, lighthearted tribute to a favorite old TV show, occasioned by a new book about the series – and gradually starts serving up discerning points about the topic at hand, sliding into this more serious mode so inconspicuously that the reader may or may not consciously register the shift.

The MTM piece is only one of many by Kay that have touched on sexual politics. In a recent column she criticizes beauty pageants for little girls as well as niqabs for women, and makes two splendid points: that both of these customs “only make sense in a culture where females have no other purpose in life than to charm,” and that “[a]rguments for freedom of religion and freedom of expression cannot prevail where those being harmed are too young or too brainwashed to evaluate their own victimhood.” Then, in classic Barbara Kay fashion, she clinches her argument by pulling the perfect example out of left field: “up until 1957 the Kaulong people on the island of New Britain just east of New Guinea practiced the ritual strangulation of widows. Nobody knows why. It was just a tribal custom. But it was so firmly ingrained that the widows themselves perpetuated it, insisting that a male relative strangle them when their husbands died, even taunting or mocking his manhood if he balked at the task. Are these women free or enslaved?”

Another recent column, this one about a feminist campaign to change two words in “O Canada” – so that instead of “in all thy sons command” it would read “in all of us command” – showcases at once Kay’s strong patriotism, her respect for men’s sacrifices, and her disdain for facile feminism, as well as a number of her distinctive strengths as a writer, among them her ability to patiently disassemble a weak argument and quietly mount a powerful one. In response to the campaign’s contention that the current anthem text is sexist, and that, after all, “some American universities have updated their anthems” to make them gender-neutral, Kay serves up generous helpings of drollery, reason, and history:

Universities are not nations. Nobody is born in them, nobody dies in them, nobody pledges allegiance to them. Universities are not called upon to protect their student bodies from the predations of other universities.

So much for comparing colleges to countries. Moving on, Kay notes that the line about “sons” dates only to 1914 – which might seem an argument for the other side, but only momentarily, for Kay proceeds to point out that the line was added at a time “when the appalling toll in young male lives” in World War I “was emerging as a stark and distressing reality as the price that would constitute ‘true patriot love.’” Clearly, then, the change in the lyric reflected a sobering awareness that “patriotism that had translated in the past and might translate in the future (and did) into military combat by Canada’s sons against Canada’s enemies.”

Beautifully argued and beautifully written – but Kay isn’t finished yet. “[A]lmost all national anthems,” she declares,

arise out of the bonding experience of war. “Patriot love” is a call to real vigilance and a promise by men to take up arms if necessary, as well as an affirmation of emotional national attachment. It is a revisionist, and I might add rather kitschy, interpretation to assign merely sentimental value to the words.

Yes, Kay acknowledges, today’s all-volunteer Canadian military includes both men and women. But in the days of the draft, “only men were conscripted,” and even now, only a “vanishingly small number of women die in combat.” Why, then, should anyone support a movement to “cleanse our anthem of this specifically male contribution to our nation’s evolution”? Just “to appease the ruffled sensibilities of feminists who wouldn’t in their wildest dreams ever consider taking up military combat”? Kay’s not buying it.

The argument could hardly be more effectively and elegantly made. But Kay, typically, has another arrow in her quiver: the French-language version of “O Canada,” she points out, actually includes a reference to “bear[ing] the cross,” implying “that only Christians built this country.” What to do about that? As she puts it: “just what we need. A second front opening on the Quebec border, with heritage-defensive sovereigntists massed in full armour and anti-ROC guns blazing. Sorry, but ‘in all thy sons command’ is an unpatriotic semantic hill to die on, if actual history and respect for our fallen are to mean anything in Canada.” Observe – and you have to read the whole piece to get the full impact – how deftly Kay blends low-key wit at her opponents’ expense with solemn, high-flown sentiments about sacrifice for one’s country.

The reference to “sovereigntists” reminds us that Kay, a longtime denizen of Montreal, also writes frequently about Quebec’s separatist movement and poisonous language politics. Earlier this year, participating in a panel discussion about these issues on a French-language TV show, Kay came up with a brilliant riposte to the claim by Quebec nationalists that their province is different enough from the rest of Canada to merit a separate identity: instead of denying this assertion, she took her opponents’ logic one step further, proposing that, just as Francophone Quebec “is a distinct society within Canada,” so is multilingual, multiethnic Montreal “a distinct society within Quebec” that also, therefore, “deserves special status.” Describing the TV discussion in a recent column, Kay says that the faces of her fellow panelists, Quebec nationalists all, “turned to stone,” for these same clowns who tiresomely and indecorously agitate for independence recoil – like Victorian maidens glimpsing a porn site – at the slightest hint that, as Kay puts it, Montreal’s “character, needs and interests have little in common with those of the rest of Quebec.”

A few months ago, the Post put out an e-book of some of Kay’s columns; at the end of this month Canada’s Freedom Press will publish a real-live bound book called Acknowledgements, a collection of Kay’s previously unpublished talks, lectures, and the like. In them, she takes on several major themes, from feminism and abortion rights to anti-male and anti-Israel bias in the academy. These pieces, most of which are substantial enough (but too spunky, too spirited) to merit the label “position papers,” are uniformly excellent. Bookending them are a long, heavily researched essay about – of all things – pit bulls (she’s against them) and an engaging intellectual memoir in which she offers a pithy summing-up of her professional objective: “I am motivated in my writing to make the case against the ‘Big Lie,’ wherever it rear its ugly head in our culture.” Invariably – as her National Post readers know very well, and as you will see for yourself if you order her book – she makes that case with a combination of grace, charm, levity, common sense, and argumentative precision that is uniquely hers. Long may she reign.

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  • RCraigen

    Yes, one would think the repeated line “We stand on guard for thee” would clue a few folks in that the Canadian Anthem has military overtones and has something to do with the sacrifice of our young men for “true patriot love”.

  • StanleyT

    I agree with you about Barbara Kay in general. The only time I disagree with you is when she tackles the subject of Quebec’s Haredi (Jewish ultra-Orthodox) population. She has very little tolerance for them, even though they do not in any way impose their views on others and try to live their own lives in their own way.

    BTW, I find it hugely ironic that Barbara’s son Jonathon, also a National Post columnist, is left wing liberal and often writes the usual left wing liberal nonsense. Kudos to Nat Post, though, for providing a range of views.

  • Barold

    I look forward to reading anything Barbara Kay writes, and have for several years now. She is (sadly) one among a small minority of political and social commentators in this country that still speaks truth to political correctness and all the other “smelly little orthodoxies” (George Orwell) that are circulating out there and distorting many Canadians’ perception of reality.

  • lyndaaquarius

    thank you Mr.Bawer for this article and all that you do for the sake of individual Liberty.

    • rubagreta

      Unless you want to get a pit bull. Then your liberty is taken away from you by this zealot.

  • Jsjk

    Barbara Kay has also written excellent opinion pieces opposing the legalization of “bawdy houses” (as it’s termed in Canada), written exposes on the nature of prostitution (including the sexual exploitation of minors), and written thought-provoking articles opposing the legalization of marijuana. She is a gem (and such a welcome breath of fresh air from the lock-step Leftist PC crowd).

  • rubagreta

    Actually, she is a complete idiot. One of her top 5 concerns is pit bulls. Yes, pit bulls. She is such an extreme fanatic that it upsets her that Target uses a bull terrier as a mascot. If a pit bull attacks a cat in Dubuque, it’s on her Twitter feed.
    The woman has done more damage to the breed than the Michael Vick’s of the world could ever have done. Meanwhile, the Connecticut legislature just passed a bill unanimously prohibiting breed specific legislation. What do these 142 legislators know that this pathologically obsessed hater does not.
    Disclosure – owner of a 12-year-old pit bull who has yet to growl at a single person, loves cats, and found a baby rabbit and mouthed it like a mother.
    Good riddance, Barbara.

    • ziggy zoggy

      Ten children were killed by “pit bulls” in America last year. Most of them were babies killed by family dogs. Eight adults were killed by “pit bulls” last year. Most of them were elderly and killed by family dogs.

      If I ever see a pit bull near one of my sons I will choke it out without a second thought. The same for any owner who interferes. Other people may take chances with their children’s lives around dangerous dogs but I won’t. The same goes for a Rottweiler.

      • rubagreta

        You are a bigger idiot than she is ziggy. And while we’re at it, why don’t we ban swimming pools, bicycles and other things that kill a lot more children than pit bulls. And go near by dog I will choke you out before you choke me out, you jacka**.

        • Cat’s Meow

          Typical pitty-idiot maniacal response.

        • bluffcreek1967

          Nonsense! Ziggy’s right. Pit bulls, Rottweilers, and other naturally aggressive dogs can do serious harm against humans if the owners don’t have a strong handle on them. These types of dogs are aggressive by nature and thus must be strongly controlled and directed by a skilled handler – unlike most other breeds which don’t require this level of supervision.

          BTW, I’m not calling for a ban on these breeds. But it’s hard to deny that they pose a genuine threat if they are not properly controlled. The problem is that far too many people have no control or discipline over these animals.

          “Cops and Dog Attacks,” http://www.ambrosekane.com

          • rubagreta

            Don’t know anything about Rotties. But pit bulls are the opposite of “naturally aggressive” dogs. If raised properly (like Golden Retrievers are raised), they are horrible watch dogs. They have no territorial instinct (unlike German Shepherds), and love it when strangers come into the house. They also love cats. You probably think I’m making this up, but I’m not.
            Now if you want to turn a pit bull into a vicious snarling dog, that’s easy to do, because they like to please their owners. And unfortunately, there is a small percentage of macho jerks who do that to their dogs.

      • JoJoJams

        While I don’t have much experience with pit bulls, I have known 3 families with Rottweilers – and all 3 Rotts were big lovable goofy dogs. I’m sure it really comes down to how they are raised. Hell, some people cant even raise their own d@mn children to be decent humans, let alone a dog. I know many say that the pit bulls were bred for fighting, but so were Shar peis (the wrinkly dogs). I had two Sharp peis and the male was an adorable knucklehead.

  • Jim Heller

    Thanks for this well-deserved tribute to a warm, trustworthy voice of reason. I’ve really grown to admire Barbara over the years, sadly in inverse proportion to my falling respect for Jonathan. She has an open, honest intelligence that persuades and impresses far more than this anti-conservative, Islamophilia. (And no, spellcheck, I don’t mean “Hemophilia” although both are forms of bleeding conditions).

  • jewdog

    The Nat’l Post is a great paper, much better than the NYTimes. I also like Robert Fulford, and many of the others…