I recently wrote a book review for the Toronto Review of Books, an outstanding new publication edited by the dynamic Jessica Duffin Wolfe. The TRB is a really remarkable entity, and the issue I wrote for — its fourth — is its first “themed” issue. I chose to write on Ezra Levant, a compelling and infuriating figure in Canadian media and politics. Levant is a demagogue of the first rank, and undoubtedly a highly intelligent fellow. What a shame, then, that this latest book is more rant than critique: I think he’s capable of producing substantive ideas on Canadian culture, but this is not one of them.
I’ve reproduced my review in its entirety below, but I encourage you to check out the whole issue of the TRB, which can be downloaded in either PDF or EPUB format. The original review may be found here.
Occupy the Right:
Ezra Levant and the Redefinition of Canadian Character
Reviewed in this essay:
Ezra Levant, The Enemy Within: Terror, Lies, and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr. McClelland & Stewart, 2011.
Ezra Levant’s jeremiad, The Enemy Within: Terror, Lies, and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr, is not actually about the eponymous Pakistani-Canadian, but rather about Toronto and the “professional protestors of the anti-war left.” In committing the burden of responsibility in the Khadr saga to the left, Levant continues his campaign of redefining responsible citizenship in a multicultural society—specifically, deconstructing the supposed failures of progressive culture and media. While energetic in his attacks on Canada’s left for its sympathies with Khadr, Levant never succeeds in identifying a coherent conservative stance on the young Canadian’s predicament.
After Levant’s republication of the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons in his magazine The Western Standard, and his subsequent self-indulgent martyrdom at the hands of the Alberta Human Rights Commission (HRC), Rex Murphy called him “the No. 1 advocate for, and defender of, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought in modern Canada.” Levant’s 2009 book Shakedown emerged from his subsequent “interrogations” with the Alberta HRC. This book was a largely anecdotal and charismatic attempt to dismantle the restraints against central tenets of Canadian democracy and free thought. Claiming that, “once unleashed, censorship can bury social progressives as easily as it can bury Prairie pastors,” Levant’s earlier work could at least make some claim to being a non-partisan and collective endeavour.
While calling The Enemy Within a sequel to Shakedown would be technically inaccurate, it does share with its earlier cousin a loathing for systems and media that privilege institutional diversity and complexity over individual liberties. And yet, ironically, this latest work is more invested in homogenizing “Canadian values” than challenging a restrictive status quo. Omar Khadr is an incidental player in this drama: the book is not fundamentally concerned with making a case for what he did or what he might do. On both counts, the record is either legally settled or speculative, and so what remains is Levant’s scathing rebuke of a culture that at worst passively encourages domestic terrorism. Levant’s Canada, and specifically Toronto, is a festering breeding ground for malign “tolerance.” Unlike Shakedown, which detailed how even progressive voices could be silenced by good intentions, The Enemy Within takes aim at a liberalism that is the sine qua non of a left-wing urban existence. Levant hopes to dislodge this culture of acceptance by occupying the new space with a more determined and unequivocal Canadian-ness.
As a character study, the book is largely a failure, since Omar Khadr remains a cipher. The young man is used to codify the moral and ethical failures of an over-tolerant culture of accommodation, and we are never enlightened about the “Canadian values” that will prevent “elite terrorists” such as Khadr from sprouting again in Canada. Throughout the book, Levant’s model for behavioural rectitude is the American Khadr killed during combat in Afghanistan. In the chapter “Whom Did Khadr Murder?” the author develops a portrait of Khadr by negative association with the lionized Christopher Speer, who is as much a paragon of virtue as Khadr is an unrepentant devil. Levant sums up this antagonistic symmetry by quoting an essay Speer’s son’s Tanner wrote to Khadr himself: “ARMY ROCK’S!! BAD GUYS STINK!!” It is hard to mistake the onerous allegory at work here: self-sacrificing hero soldier from an average Midwestern American background dies at the hand of an urbanized, “worldly” Canadian child of Islamic immigrants with a suspicious and criminal past.
Levant is not so crude as to suggest that immigration policy alone could be responsible for Canada’s failure to match American standards of citizenship. He proposes that progressive media and educational institutions have fostered bad outcomes from immigration, manifested in the malignity of such figures as Omar Khadr. In his study of Khadr’s character, Dr. Michael Welner—the psychiatrist whose testimony condemning Khadr was ultimately disallowed from submission at trial—maintains a suspicion that the young man “had been indoctrinated by his anti-Gitmo amen corner,” i.e. Canada’s left-leaning media and the social justice community. Levant takes up this critique with gusto, never missing an opportunity to draw in some element of the “elite” intelligentsia who characterize Toronto’s media scene. In particular, the “always credulous” Toronto Star and its readers are all but accused of colluding with Omar’s father Ahmed Khadr in “buying guns, and ammunition, and bombs, and anti-aircraft weapons, and landmines for jihadist guerillas.” Star reporter Michelle Shepard and rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick are identified as key players in this sympathetic drama—the latter blind in Levant’s view to the (admittedly possible) irony that Khadr, left to his own devices, would like nothing better than to kill her. “After all,” writes Levant, “the woman is an ardent advocate for gay rights, she’s Jewish, and is one of Canada’s leading feminists.”
That Khadr’s grandparents owned a bakery on Toronto’s Eglinton Avenue West, “one of the most ethnically diverse strips of commerce in North America,” seems to have had little effect on his aspirations. Levant argues that Canada’s lack of moral direction—its unwillingness to declare certain cultural codes taboo or illegal—has allowed the fundamentalism exhibited by Ahmed Kadr and his sons to grow deep. Levant’s attempts to redefine or perhaps “roll back” the character of an “average” Canadian childhood smack of a deliberate misunderstanding of pluralism. Instead of a nuanced, mature discussion of cultural density and his resistance to the notion that its narrative of accommodation is inevitable, Levant only offers facile contrasts of a zealous obsession with the Quran with an “average” Canadian youth’s interest in Harry Potter.
If, as Levant believes, the ground has been laid for “elite” and “worldly” terrorists to occupy Canadian cities, we ought to be concerned. Yet in confronting this possibility, Levant viciously and rather aimlessly harangues the reader with the outrage that villains such as the Khadrs were ever allowed here in the first place. He seems personally offended that a Canadian citizen could and would so easily dispose of traditional Canadian values, and yet walk unimpeded among “us.” This missed opportunity for both Levant as a writer, and for the conservative culture whose attention he has captured, replaces genuine conservative social critique with a witch-hunt.
Despite every instance of abuse the Khadr family has heaped upon the Canadian health care, immigration, and justice systems, the fact remains that they are still Canadian citizens. That Omar Khadr could once again occupy Canada, his place of birth and rightful home, is blamed on the left: “Thanks to years of hard cheerleading on our campuses, in our political movements, and in our newsrooms for the family’s most favoured son, Canada will soon become Omar Khadr’s country.” Part of this is tongue-in-cheek, but his quip— “will soon become”—is nonetheless deeply troubling: to claim, even in jest, that a native citizenship is conditional upon the convictions (justified or not) of a foreign court borders on a dangerously extreme nationalism.
Unlike Shakedown ’s more libertarian concerns, The Enemy Within evinces a reactionary conservatism that stakes a claim for codes of conduct and upbringing. Unable to provide a constitutional model of morality that accepts the diversity of Canadian demographics, Levant becomes obsessed with Omar Khadr’s non-Canadian-ness, but in Canada’s cities especially, Khadr’s difference from Levant’s “average” is utterly banal. A majority of Canadians can by now identify with Khadr’s divergence from the historical ethnic norms Levant tries to uphold. Levant’s anger is misplaced, and his efforts to prevent Khadr’s re-entry have all the hallmarks of a superstitious exorcism. Rather than attacking Khadr for his lack of patriotism and failures as a Canadian, Levant should be asking what could be done to help keep other youth from becoming radicalized on Toronto’s streets. Success in that vein simply cannot happen by shunning the transgressor, and pretending as if he did not exist.