Toronto Svengali

The only regret I have about writing all this stuff about Jian Ghomeshi is that it isn’t getting me more page views. Actually, that’s total bullshit: I know for a fact that I have regular readers (two is a plural, too, you know), and I’d probably have no qualms about allowing a font of Ghomeshi content to gush forth in these pages even if my readership were composed entirely of one-time visitors who came for the weird sexual queries that they just ran through Google and did not stay for the liturgical Doge and Condescending Wonka references. This stuff, it comes from the heart. So, for that matter, does Wow Much canucks Such pervy Very adnauseam, but this Ghomeshi clusterfuck also allows me to focus my romantic American interest in Canada on something other than the HRSDC website. I haven’t been able to figure out Canadian work permitting regulations for my kind, either, so it’s less disappointing that I can’t grok what’s wrong with this Canadian radio celebrity whose main relevance to my life before his fall from grace was that it sometimes took me a minute or two of his interviews to come to the annoying realization that, dammit, that isn’t Dave Davies after all. The giveaway was usually either that he was interviewing some musician that I’d never in my life heard aboot or that his questions weren’t as thoughtful as they sounded.

So while I work on my kinky Canada-themed SEO and Jian Ghomeshi works on his public image for the last thirty years, Canada’s only national weekly current affairs magazine (TM) works on a serious, Doge-free examination of Canada’s indispensable radio host. If that sounds meta, try this CBC investigative documentary on the CBC’s previous failure to properly investigate and supervise the CBC. One of the recurrent complaints circulating about the Toronto media and arts establishment is that it’s incestuous. When the national public broadcaster dedicates an entire episode of its weekly television program about the activities of other journalists to a soap opera that just unfolded down the hall, all the highbrow resident of T’rahnnah can do is grab a bottle of lube and moan, “fuck me, daddy.” That’s a rather unfair description of the Fifth Estate, but a charitable enough description of Jian Ghomeshi, since it can be construed less literally than his pending charge of “overcome resistance–choking.”

Let’s return to the Macleans article, which was published weeks before Ghomeshi’s indictment and is therefore a timelier piece than what I’m writing now. It’s disturbing. Not being very familiar with the geography of greater Toronto, I didn’t realize until looking up the locations of the towns and neighborhoods that keep resurfacing in Ghomeshi’s history is that he has been rooted for almost his entire life in a narrow band extending barely thirty kilometers north from downtown Toronto. (See? I used the metric, eh.) The accusations against him pretty much all arose in Toronto, or else in other cities that Ghomeshi was visiting on business from Toronto. York University, where Ghomeshi was enrolled as an undergraduate from 1985 to 1995 (yes, you read that correctly, and yes, the administration granted him extensive leave over the years to make “music”), is located less than two miles from the edge of Thornhill, the town where Ghomeshi was raised (and has returned to live with his mother, as per his bail conditions) and where his band, Moxy Früvous, was established and based. Some of the coverage of his recent arrest suggests that he and his lawyers arranged for him to surrender to detectives in west Toronto in the hope of temporarily outwitting the press.

This seems to be a man who was able to keep harassing, battering, and choking women not only in the same city but in the same neighborhoods for decades. He didn’t have to leave town in flight from his dark past; he didn’t even have to move across town. Not only that, it seems that he kept attacking women who were part of the same cultural milieu, specifically, educated women who were in or around the downtown arts, journalism, and humanities scenes.

Before he got serious about preying on the downtowners, Ghomeshi is accused of preying on fellow students at York University. I’m agnostic about the credibility of some specific allegations, since they fit the prevailing pattern but are also being made by people who may have ulterior motives to contribute their own false or exaggerated allegations to the current Two Minutes Hate. That said, I doubt the stories from York are all meretricious fables. One of the pictures in the Macleans article is a black-and-white photograph showing Ghomeshi delivering a stump speech during one of his campaigns for the presidency of the York student government. The combination of his long, wavy hairstyle, white shirt, glasses, and his facial and body language has a creepifying sixties cult throwback feel about it. His ethnicity contributes to the creepiness of the picture, but it is neither an inevitable cause for prejudice nor a precondition. Ghomeshi himself didn’t give off that vibe as a CBC host, or even very much during his longhair days with Moxy Früvous. Conversely, white guys like Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert, his father a Jewish attorney and New Haven Railroad executive) never let their ethnicity get between themselves and the honored profession of hippie fleecing.

It seems that the student body at York University was game for a little cult action. Ghomeshi ran unsuccessfully for student body president in 1989, then won in an unprecedented landslide in 1990. The general story is that the women on campus were drawn to him in droves while the men on campus considered him a disgusting, smarmy, disingenuous lech. Of course, any undersexed man can be expected to hate the apex male feminist in his community who has a volunteer harem jumping his bones. Some of the criticism may very well be male rivalry from resentful guys who were too bashful or protective of their own egos to even look for a compatible prostitute.

This wouldn’t, however, explain the women who quietly sounded the alarm about Ghomeshi, including the resident advisers who banned him from their dormitory on account of allegations of sexual assault and strangulation and told women to be on the lookout for him. A former student named Kerry Eady told Macleans that an emergency meeting of her dorm’s coeds was convened over Ghomeshi around Christmas of 1988, before his first run for the student government. I’m a bit skeptical of these perv-at-York stories, just because there’s a chance that it could be the kind of thing where a dozen people were present for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and two dozen of them published memoirs about what they witnessed in the theater that awful day. Even so, I suspect that they’re mostly accurate.

There’s an eerie foreshadowing in Jian Ghomeshi’s election to the student government presidency. A schoolmate of Ghomeshi’s said that the York student government “had hitherto been a real political wasteland.” Ghomeshi managed to turf out an irrelevant and moribund incumbent government through a combination of aggressive political correctness and raw charisma. He saw a vacuum, and he became the power that filled it.

What’s eerie is that it’s the same approach he later used to break into the CBC in his mid-thirties, without any prior experience in journalism and little as an entertainment host, and immediately land the host’s spot on Play, a nationally syndicated studio-audience TV show focusing on pop culture. People who saw his audition and demo cuts said that he bombed on the technical aspects and had an unprofessional, flippant bearing, but he charmed the hiring committee. CBC executives were desperate to rejuvenate their corporation’s aging and dying audience, and the only way they could see to do this was to go “hip” and blow youngsters out of the water with proof that the Mother Corporation was no longer a time capsule of stuffy-ass midcentury Anglophile snobbery.

It worked. Play drew in the youngsters that CBC management so desperately wanted. Many of them were “Frü-heads,” and Ghomeshi alienated staffers by ditching them after tapings to hang out with groupies. Worse was his peevish behavior around the studio. He became notorious for his hostile indifference towards male staffers and his touchy-feely leering around female staffers. He failed to stay in touch with staffers when the program was on deadline, a behavior that was widely interpreted as a deliberate mind game. Play was only on the air for three years before its ratings tanked and the CBC canceled it. By that point Ghomeshi was already notorious for unprofessional behavior in the workplace, especially towards subordinates and de facto subordinates. Even so, he was still exactly the star that management wanted, so he was moved into temporary vacancies around the CBC until his installation as the founding grand poobah at Q. The reasoning of the CBC management seemed to be that maybe his programming was crap, but at least it was popular crap, and at the very least it had the potential to be popular crap. After all, none of the golden oldies out on the prairie would be able to listen to the CBC’s highbrow programming when they were dead.

Ghomeshi’s impunity for workplace misconduct, already entrenched in his days at Play, apparently got worse at Q. Ghomeshi secured additional perks from management: the show’s official name was changed to Q with Jian Ghomeshi, reverting to Q in the Summer during the extended summer breaks that Ghomeshi was granted starting in 2010. He was still allowed to demand punishingly long hours from staffers, and he was still allowed to shut them out when the show was on deadline. His sexual harassment of female employees became worse and more frequent. When staffers complained to management or union representatives, they were told to work around his bad behavior.

The common thread of the Jian Ghomeshi tales that have emerged since October is that he’s a man who knows how to get away with shit. That’s one thing in student government, an institution about which no sensible person can be bothered to give a shit; it’s quite another at a national public broadcasting company crawling with corporate attorneys, personnel staff, and union representatives. The CBC is the sort of institution one would expect to be in the hands of savvy, seasoned corporate leaders, on account of institutional inertia if nothing else, not in the death grip of callow, sophomoric buck-passers whose “leadership” can be accepted in quasiinstitutional student groups because the stakes are so meaningless.

This is sort of scandal is probably more shocking for Canadians than it would be for Americans if it involved a bigwig at NPR. Canadians have historically trusted their government more than Americans have ours, and for some pretty fucking good reasons. They presume Crown corporations to be run and overseen in the public interest, not, as many Americans assume of PBS, NPR, and the like, controlled by disingenuous, self-dealing, parasitic moralists. That’s the story, anyway. Maybe I, too, have fallen for some whoppers about the Great White North.

I have, however, heard of Tommy Douglas, and, as I’ve mentioned before, that sets me apart from my countrymen. Tommy who? Huh? What the hell did he do? We’ve never had our own Tommy Douglas. Lately we’ve had Peter Shumlin and his so far theoretical Green Mountain Care, but–oh God. What a pathetic disgrace to think that one of our most unabashedly socialistic states is half a century behind Saskatchewan, of all places, and can’t hold the line against private “consultant” mountebanks. We have, however, had plenty of Ghomeshian figures: O. J. Simpson, Woody Allen, Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno, Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski (okay, he’s French or some shit, but he didn’t drug that girl in Cannes), Teddy Kennedy. And even in today’s Canada, Tommy Douglas might well not get anywhere. He was kind of funny-looking, after all, and a Scotsman, while Ghomeshi? “But His Voice Is Like Chocolate And I Love Him.”

You haven’t read enough of Maclean’s coverage of Ghomeshi yet. No, you haven’t:

Ghomeshi’s suicide bombing of his own reputation led some writers to praise him, in an odd combination of handwashing and valediction, as a great host and interviewer despite his sins. I am afraid this goes to show that the defensive instincts of the Torontonian legacy-media claque operate even in a time of shame and soul-searching. If Ghomeshi really had any talent, it is hard to explain why the only moment in his career that anybody seems to remember with any vividness is his awkward 2009 collision with a truculent, peeved Billy Bob Thornton.

Certainly that is the highlight, the shred of Jian Ghomeshi that will survive: one short segment of legendarily awful radio….It was about the only reason any American, aside from public-radio trainspotters and a few unfortunate FCC regulators, might have heard of Jian Ghomeshi.

Q is, in theory, an “arts magazine” show. It has made Ghomeshi a sort of national compère, juxtaposing CanLit grannies and media blowhards with grade-A pop-star guests and amassing visibility from being at the centre of it all….

It is not the purpose of Q to express individuality, but to express power, the harmonious, sweetly liberal, eternally-in-opposition power of the arts community. The show is not just coincidentally redolent of self-satisfaction: It is designed to communicate self-satisfaction, in the medical sense of “communicate.” The fans of Q are those who venerate the spiritual power of the traditional arts, and they rushed, unwisely and shamefully, to defend Ghomeshi, suggesting at first that he had been the victim of a Conservative party conspiracy. This cannot be accounted for, except on the premise that Ghomeshi was the leader-guru of a cult. Don’t we all know how cult leaders generally end up treating women?

“In the medical sense.” That explains a lot of things about the CBC. It’s apparently a psychically sick organization. Of course a Svengali like Jian Ghomeshi was able to colonize it.

The Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan reports that when he confronted Ghomeshi about abuse allegations in a recent chance meeting, Ghomeshi told him, “You need to watch yourself . . . People in this city need to understand that I have a long memory.” Any normal person—let’s say, someone who earned his living making or fixing something—would surely react to this threat by saying, “Uh, you’re some douche with a radio show. What are you gonna do, sing a crappy comedy folk song about me?”

Yup. It also seems that most people being confronted with allegations he knows to be false would either refuse to discuss them or express some combination of confusion and amusement that such a story is even in circulation. There’s something that just sounds guilty about warning, in effect, that an elephant in musth never forgets.

Imagine a world so crowded, unhealthy, and inbred that Ghomeshi could feel confident in making such a threat. Imagine that he could, in fact, create a regime of sexual terror that famous, experienced women hesitated to defy. Imagine that, even now, people are lined up in the hundreds, hoping to enter that world, praying for a chance to cling to its fringes. If you can.

Carla Ciccone doesn’t have to imagine this world. She lives and breathes it. This is a world in which the veteran of a D-list satirical rock group, a sort of poor man’s Tom Lehrer, can hijack a national public broadcaster for twelve years because nobody in the big city has the balls to stand up to him.

If Kevin Vickers, at the age of 58, can retrieve a handgun from a lockbox, dive to the floor, and shoot down a yahoo who’s trying to massacre Parliament, the least you can do as an intern in your twenties or as a forty-something with personnel authority is to not allow some asshole to walk all over you or your organization and commit violent sex crimes with impunity just because he’s, like, a big deal on the radio and stuff. Most of us don’t have what it takes to fill Vickers’ shoes, but that’s all right. Shit, does he look like he lords it over other people because he’s a career Mountie veteran in charge of security at Parliament Hill and they aren’t? Jian Ghomeshi, on the other hand, is one to lord it over other people for their not being Jian Ghomeshi and not adequately recognizing the greatness that is Jian Ghomeshi. It’s kind of amusing to the extent that it isn’t really sad and tragic.

And never forget that it was he, not Vickers, who publicly called himself a “good soldier” in spite of his never having served in the Canadian Forces, while one of his accusers now holds an officer’s commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It’s definitely poor form to defend oneself against sexual assault allegations with language like that when one hasn’t even failed out of basic training or, for that matter, stolen panties and committed a few murders while in command of an air force base. At least Colonel Williams knows his way around the military and might appreciate “Humor in Uniform,” even if, as a Reader’s Digest feature, it isn’t as edgy as he’d prefer. It’s a metaphor, but it’s more than just a metaphor. Stolen valor should not be against the law, but by any reasonable definition it is inherently against good taste.

It’s a free country. You have options. You can take a look at Kevin Vickers and try to learn something from his humility, courage, stoicism, goodwill, and constancy, life lessons from a guy who looks like he walks the talk, or you can figure that living so deeply in truth, even tentatively and abstractly, would get in the way of complaining about how egregiously butthurtful it is that some pervy douchebag on the radio might not launch you into the A-list Toronto arts scene if you stand up to him because he chokes women out of the blue.

Maybe what Canada needs is more New Brunswick farm kids and fewer Toronto arts scene wankers. I can’t imagine it would make things worse.


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