There’s diminishing return, I recognize, in minutely critiquing every article produced by the “‘Too Asian?’” controversy. Tony Keller, the former managing editor of Maclean’s has written a very sprightly but wrong-headed article for the National Post on the issue. It takes a slightly different angle to the issue than that of Maclean’s, but not totally different. The problems I have with Keller are largely the problems I’ve already outlined, on several occasions, against Maclean’s (briefly, some very facile stereotyping, an unwillingness to look at the role of class, and also an unawareness that the type of program students are in influences what type of social life they have). Since I’ve already made these points, I’ll not re-iterate them.
There are a few quirky things in Keller’s article that rubbed me the wrong way: to float the idea that whites are underrepresented in elite programs, Keller comes up with the curious phrase “non-Jewish whites.” Now, as any historian will recognize, the whiteness of Jews is a historically contingent phenomenon: but since roughly the Second World War, it’s been commonplace in North America to accord the privilege of whiteness to Jews. Outside the far right, this is a widely shared consensus. So I don’t think it’s worthwhile to start talking about “non-Jewish whites.”
There is one other passage in Keller I want to single out for notice:
Two weeks ago, Maclean’s magazine published an article headlined, “Too Asian?” about the racial makeup of Canada’s university campuses. U of T was singled out as a campus that has become very Asian. The article was universally panned, the favoured reaction being accusing Maclean’s of racism.
Ah, racism: once you pull out that card, the discussion is over. And that’s too bad because the Maclean’s article, for all its faults, actually contained some new information, on a topic that anyone who spends five minutes on a Canadian university campus notices: the rapidly changing racial makeup of the student body. [Italics added]
Now, it’s true that the critics of the article have used strong language. Some have called it “racist” while I’ve chosen what I think is the more precise term “xenophobic.”
But is it true that the critics of “’Too Asian?’” want the “the discussion [to be] over”? The critics have written essay and blog postings as well as organized teach-ins. Many of these critiques of Maclean’s have been extremely thoughtful and scholarly. The response from Maclean’s has been to stonewall and avoid debate. Here’s what I wrote in The Walrus about this:
The vast majority of public debate on “‘Too Asian?’” has taken place on blogs and Twitter, surely evidence of a media culture that’s afraid to critique itself. This past Monday, Q tried to organize a debate on this issue, but Maclean’s refused to send anyone (either the writers of the article or an editor) to engage with me. Further, the Globe declined my request to write a rebuttal to Wente’s column. So if anyone is being “timid” here, it is Maclean’s and those who defend it.
In fact, virtually the only place that the editors of Maclean’s have been willing to appear to discuss this issue are friendly ground like the Omni network (Omni is owned by the same company that publishes Maclean’s). Maclean’s will talk about this issue only in places where they expect to get soft-ball questions. In more ways than one, Maclean’s has become the Sarah Palin of Canadian magazines: willing to spout off incendiary rhetoric but unwilling to be challenged on neutral ground.
It has been difficult to have a conversation on this matter, but it’s not because of the critics of Maclean’s have used harsh language but rather because Maclean’s, after publishing an inflammatory article that upset many people, refuses to engage in any conversation at all. Rather than blaming the critics of Maclean’s, Keller really should question the judgement and behaviour of his former employers.