Sue-Ann Levy's book shows some promise, but then she reverts to the petty and lazy tropes that make up her brand.
There is a certain point during one’s reading of Underdog, Sue-Ann Levy’s memoir-slash-polemic, where one has to simply put down the book and shake one’s head. It comes at page 124 when Levy discusses Rob Ford’s time in office:
The attitude was, either you were anti-Ford or you were pro-Ford. There was no in between or shades of grey, as is necessary in any democracy. The debate was extremely polarized, and I was often berated for daring to show the slightest bit of empathy or for understanding why he was in denial about his alcoholism.
To be clear, this is Sue-Ann Levy complaining about polarization and black-and-white worldviews. There is not a journalist in Toronto who could possibly be more hypocritical making any complaint, unless Joe Warmington wrote a column decrying hats. Read that quote again, and then consider that this blurb is from the back of her damn book:
The Lib-leftists have convinced themselves that they are tolerant, inclusive champions of diversity…The truth is, at least in my experience, they are close-minded, intolerant, petulant, and prone to stereotyping. If they are challenged with facts, they will invariably go on the offence, often resorting to cheap, personal attacks. All too many Lib-leftists I’ve encountered and written about see absolutely no irony in the fact that while they purport to want to champion the downtrodden, and forever make a great show of supposedly doing so, leftist politicians, do-gooders and assorted poverty industry activists are not only the first to line up at the public trough but have spent years sucking it dry.
The inside of the book is like this but much more so. Levy has tremendously little to say that is kind about essentially every single prominent left-wing political or journalistic figure in Toronto and a great many nasty things to say about all of them. Kathleen Wynne probably earns the single greatest helping of Levy’s scorn, but there is not a left-leaning city councillor or prominent politician/journalist who Levy doesn’t insult at least once and usually much more than once. A selection: Shelley Carroll “drove the city’s finances into freefall while pretending to know what she was talking about or making it up as she went along”; Toronto Star columnist Royson James is a “smug, self-righteous and lazy man”; former City ombudsman Fiona Crean is “far more interested in investigating issues that fulfilled her leftist agenda than in the bread-and-butter concerns of residents”; Star reporter Daniel Dale is described as a “brown-noser” and “wimpy.”
That last one bears mentioning because Levy discusses the infamous Rob Ford/Daniel Dale incident, which led to Dale’s libel suit against Ford, and states that “While Mr. Ford never actually said the word, Dale implied that he was called a pedophile.” To be clear, Dale did not “imply” this. He said straight out that in an interview with Conrad Black on ZoomerTV Ford strongly suggested that Dale was a pedophile, and he said this because Ford falsely accused Dale of taking photographs of Ford’s children and also said, “I don’t want to say that word” when describing Dale’s behaviour.
Levy’s discussion of Dale is a good example of a recurring theme in Levy’s book, which is simply that she is not in any way objective. To be clear, I am not suggesting that objectivity is necessarily a goal journalists should pursue with single-minded zeal; that is impossible. But if there is one constant to Levy’s writing (and, one assumes, her mindset generally), it is that she is only even moderately charitable to her perceived opponents when they agree with her and generous beyond the point of fault to those she perceives as allies. She argues that former city councillors (and ideological allies) like Mike Del Grande and Doug Holyday, who opposed same-sex marriage rights, should not be considered homophobic because they celebrated her own marriage to her partner, Denise. This demonstrates that Levy does not really understand that celebrating civil rights only for the people you like is a meaningless act.
There’s also the problem of Levy’s reporting on Rob Ford. Her claim that Ford hid his substance abuse problems “well” is one that, given her position and experience, is simply not credible; for it to be true, she would have to be completely useless as an investigative reporter. (And whatever Levy is, she is a dogged investigative reporter and one skilled in the use of rhetoric—even if said rhetoric is mostly spiteful.) The most charitable reading of this would be to assign a truly bewildering amount of willful blindness to Levy—another possibility is that she may have heard about Ford’s foibles and chose to overlook them because she liked him as a person. That interpretation colours most of the rest of the book: Levy’s self-image of herself as a determined truth-teller suffers greatly because of it, and those parts of the book where she tells stories about her own personal experiences are less credible as a result.
Then there’s her retelling of her infamous “#MuslimBS” tweet about Barack Obama, where she skips the part when at least once she appeared to double down on the claim that the president is a secret Muslim and where she becomes extremely defensive, and even whiny, about how she was criticized and attacked by many people for saying something that was extremely offensive. For someone who spends an entire chapter of her book complaining about how Canadians are “too polite” and how “students who bully aggressively and without remorse” need to be shown “some tough love,” she can dish it out but she sure can’t take it—as is generally the case with most outspoken critics of “political correctness.”
It should be noted that some of Levy’s opponents make the mistake of believing Levy’s generally black-and-white worldview (and there are few writers in Canada as strictly dualist in their thought process as Levy is) is strictly a right-wing/left-wing divide, but that isn’t the case. Certainly most of Levy’s bete noires fall on the left-hand side of the political spectrum, but this writer, for example, agrees with her characterization of former Councillor Karen Stintz as a “backstabbing opportunist” or of the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus as “a team of barely mediocre yes-men and -women”.
This is the sort of thing one must note in order to prevent Levy from crowing that people make incorrect assumptions about her. She makes this complaint numerous times in her book, and it’s not the only time she repeats herself. By the end, the average reader will be able to skip entire chunks of paragraphs simply because they have already read them. (My favourite example is, on two separate occasions, Levy rattles off a list of individual city councillors who refuse to take her calls.) Levy also spends a large chunk of the book simply recycling her old columns. For example, in the space of four pages (114 to 117), she recycles this column, this one, this one, this one, and this one.
And here’s the thing, it didn’t have to be this way. The early chapters of the book—wherein Levy discusses her childhood, growing up gay and Jewish, being closeted, her sexual assaults, coming out, getting married—contain good, compelling writing. That shouldn’t surprise anybody because Levy, whatever one thinks of her politics, is a skilled writer; there are few better at her brand of anger-prose, and she can write a good joke. True, the narrative suffers a bit because Levy’s writing throughout the book is often self-celebratory to the point of parody (a high point is when Levy takes the care to mention that on her 50th birthday she was still a size eight), but, regardless, it’s a pretty compelling story for the first three chapters. Unfortunately, there are ten more afterwards.
If the rest of the book wasn’t so goddamn lazy and such a predictable, petty kludge of the same old Sue-Ann Levy we all know, with recycled columns and repeated tropes that seem little more than an attempt to hit the minimal word count necessary to justify the terms of the book contract, this might have been something special. But it isn’t.