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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