On July 27 of this year, 75-year-old Antonio Batista was found guilty of making death threats against his Mississauga city councillor for writing and distributing around his neighbourhood a poem which concluded with the following passage:
We are going to dig a pothole about six feet and 3 feet wide and 5 feet deep to hide her body and God will take care of Her Soul, but we cannot forgive her for doing nothing. She can keep running at a good pace but We will make sure that She is in HEAVEN and out of the race. So please GOD take care of this SOUL for ever and EVER.
The defence argued that the poem was a work of satire, but the judge ruled that since Batista was not aware of the concept of satire, he was incapable of producing it. Batista was conditionally discharged, sentenced to a year of probation, and ordered to keep away from his councillor.
On Friday of last week, the Toronto Star‘s City Hall columnist, Royson James, ended a column about Toronto City Council’s (perceived) financial mismanagement by stating that
Councillors should be hanged, one a day, at noon, in Nathan Phillips Square. Charge admission. We’ll net enough money to pay off most of our civic bills.
And that was just the beginning.
The following day a letter signed by the Mayor appeared in the paper:
As the elected leader of Toronto City Council, I must respond to Royson James’s column. It is an utterly despicable piece of supposed journalism and unworthy of your publication.
I will ignore for the moment that many of James’s facts are wrong and go directly to the last paragraph of his column….Such a statement is beneath contempt and shows absolutely no respect for democracy, for the families of elected officials or for those in this country who fought to preserve our freedom….I cannot believe a veteran columnist like James would stoop so low as to think that city councillors should be lynched in the public square, never mind put such outrageous thoughts in writing. And it is beyond belief that a newspaper of the Toronto Star’s stature – a publication that proclaims itself as the Voice of the GTA – would actually print such hateful ruminations. I find this absolutely offensive.
Many Torontonians came to this city from countries where public officials and other innocent people have been hanged or otherwise murdered and where such atrocities continue to this day. They came to Toronto to be free from such terror and callous disregard for human life. Perhaps James should have asked them – and others, like my Uncle Jim, who fought for the right to debate and discuss public policy – their thoughts on his loathsome advocacy for public lynching.
Today James fired back:
I had planned to append an apology to the end of this column….It would have read, “Sorry for the rhetorical excess at the end of my column last Friday. Obviously, the suggestion to hang our councillors in Nathan Phillips Square was an attempt at satire, a statement made in jest. While the majority of readers took it that way, my apologies to those who felt hurt by it.”
But then Mayor David Miller inserted his hectoring presence into the debate – and before you know it, a rhetorical hanging became a “public lynching,” the memory of his “Uncle Jim” is exhumed and he has concluded that the very foundation of democracy is being threatened by one columnist raging against city hall spending….At issue is how do we register our disgust – sorry, our displeasure – at their fiscal indiscretions.
A number of readers have emailed concern about the mayor’s “over the top” rhetoric. Some, mine. Others fear I’ll be beaten (metaphorically?) into submission, afraid to utter a single contrarian view in future. My bosses, far from moving to censure me, are more concerned that I might be “chilled” into overlooking wasteful habits as council embarks on this crucial 2008 budget cycle.
No worries….A cursory glance at the mayor’s letter, dripping with bile and bluster, reveals no cause for concern that one’s criticism must now be facile, gracious or temperate….Appropriating the title of ombudsman, editor and publisher – in addition to chief magistrate and monarch – in an attempt to control all propaganda, er, communications in Hogtown, the official list of approved words and phrases include: “Beneath contempt,” “Shows absolutely no respect for democracy,” “stoop so low,” “outrageous thoughts,” “beyond belief,” “hateful ruminations,” “absolutely offensive,” “loathsome advocacy.”
The tensions between James and Miller have been simmering for years, and it’s a bit surprising that they’ve taken this long to boil over. The story goes that the Lastman administration used to offer James tips and leaks, and he’s resentful that the Miller team doesn’t do the same. That seems to be an offensively simplistic take on his supposed animus for the Mayor; it’s probably more accurate to observe that James is critical of everybody, to such a degree that his anger (whether it exists beyond the newsprint or not) appears to be scattered unpredictably. One of the more fascinating aspects of James as a columnist is that he’s tough to pin down; reading his writing becomes an exercise in looking for a pattern, a logic that governs his political attitudes. Some have long given up; one City Hall insider recently described James as someone whose first thought when he wakes up is “How can I hurt the mayor today?”
But dismissing James as self-serving or out to get the mayor misses the point: he’s an interesting writer who can occasionally be a dick (but more often than not uses his columns to raise questions worth asking). Hyperbole is not the way to fight hyperbole, any more than fire can fight fire––you just end up with a whole lot of burns.
Photo by worldwidewebdomination from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.