STFU Margaret Wente: An Analysis of Profitable Political Provocationism

Posted on May 12, 2011

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Westboro Baptist Church. If the mention of that name doesn’t immediately induce some measure of rage, then I would like to kindly welcome you to the internet and inform you that the Westboro Baptist Church is generally considered to be the worst group of people currently alive. They travel around the United States, usually to areas which have recently been visited by tragedy, and make a big show of celebrating God’s justice upon a sinful world by waving anti-gay picket signs in everybody’s faces. They do this, among other places, at funerals. I’m not going to link to their website, because the URL is a borderline hate crime.

I bring them up because they are the most extreme example of a financial strategy that is actually pretty widespread. What many people don’t realize about WBC is that a significant number of them, including their founder, Fred Phelps, are educated as lawyers. They fund their whole operation through lawsuits. When they arrive at a funeral and accost grieving parents and friends with hateful and ultimately irrelevant signs about sodomy, what they’re really doing is trying to provoke an assault against themselves. They then file a lawsuit, complete with video evidence, against whoever attacked them, and make off with enough money to fund airfare for their next attack on common decency. Matthew 19:24, my ass.

Fred Phelps and his church are an extreme example, but this practice is actually pretty widespread. Take Ann Coulter, who writes Islamaphobic, anti-feminist, socially regressive books and columns, gets a ton of publicity by making sensible people angry, and laughs all the way to the bank. This behaviour is not restricted to the right; it is also typical of Michael Moore. The generalized form of the business model can be summed up as follows:

1. Piss people off

2. Leverage peoples’ anger for attention.

3. Use lawsuits, book sales, advertising revenues, or any other available means to turn all that attention and outrage into cash.

4. Profit!

5. Find a new issue and repeat.

Typical of Canada, our version of this business strategy is a bit understated when compared with our neighbors to the south. Or maybe theirs is overstated compared to everywhere ever. At any rate, while they get Ann Coulter, we get Margaret Wente. Wente, in a Globe and Mail column shilling her most recent book, describes her journalistic style thusly:

“I think the conventional wisdom is often (not always) wrong, and that it’s important to explore the other side. As Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, says, if your column doesn’t offend a significant number of people, then you’ve wasted the space.”

This was also how Wente described her approach when I heard her speak at a panel discussion a few years ago. It sounds virtuous enough. But when you read through just the titles of her most recent columns (as of this posting) , you find that she has attacked a renowned philanthropist, the Royal Family, the entire Canadian left, environmentalists, and, most recently, Slutwalk. It’s that most recent column that sufficiently angered me to write this week’s second post about Wente. Check out this nonsense:

“The highly educated young women who join SlutWalks are among the safest and most secure in the world. But you’d never know it from the fevered rhetoric. According to one widely cited scare statistic cooked up by the American Association of University Women, no fewer than 62 per cent of female students say they’ve been sexually harassed at university – a figure that is credible only if you include every incident of being groped by some 20-year-old drunk.”

A problem with the business strategy I outlined above is that offense is actually a finite resource. There are only so many times you can enrage the same group, and so, like a bad pornographer, Wente has to keep upping the ante by being more and more obnoxious in order to keep getting attention. Wente’s career has now been long enough that she’s been forced to suggest that unsolicited groping does not qualify as sexual harassment, so long as it is committed by a broski who has had a few too many brewskis. I’m going to let my disgust at that comment stand on its own, and refer you to the excellent point rebuttal on the slutwalk website. In all honesty, there is really not all that much to rebut. You will find that Wente does little to back up her bold assertions, and considers no counterarguments. This is characteristic of her writing. She is not so much exploring the other side as inventing the other side.

Inviting offense by challenging conventional wisdom is a permissable and even praiseworthy act so long as there is some kind of broader purpose. Offense can be a side-product of valuable education or agitation, but that is not what Margaret Wente is doing. Her column is usually pure, distilled provocation with no redeeming intellectual merit. Wente, like her more abrasive American counterparts, has made an art form of profiting off other peoples’ offense. Unfortunately, so long as newspapers are run with profit in mind, people like Margaret Wente will thrive. Unfortunately, what is true or useful is frequently not profitable. Let’s hope that Wente runs out of people to offend sometime soon, and is replaced with a columnist that actually has something to say. We deserve better from our national media.

P.S. If you want to learn more about slutwalk (and you should), check out their website, or its coverage at Steeltown Adventure Friends and The Pervocracy.

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