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McGill Reporter
April 28, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 15
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To the Editor:

My father was an equal-opportunity offender, driven primarily by moral outrage, but also a pretty stringent demand for consistency, originality and wit. Were he to weigh in on the argument over Maria Francesca LoDico's recent Reporter article, "Viva Richleriano!" (March 25), I imagine the first things he'd ask would be, "Is it funny and well-observed? Is it succinct? And what is the context in which the offending word was used?"

The last consideration, I have always thought, is a basic building block of academic studies, but Sam Noumoff (see letter of April 8) recklessly discounts context, deeming the word "wop" offensive and unfit for publication per se. While he's at it, why not outlaw irony, satire, sarcasm, parody, caricature and inverted commas as well? It seems obvious that the concern is over neither academic analysis nor creative expression, but is about public opinion -- a mug's game, not to mention the imagination's dead end.

LoDico's piece strikes me as very much in the "School of Richler," being irreverent and full of appetite, but its fault -- and the resulting public misunderstanding, perhaps -- may be that it's too kind. The description of Gil Bellows's performance (that it sent a meshugenah conference the way of "mamma mia!") misses how embarrassing the performance was. Bellow had the best intentions, I'm sure, attempting without rehearsal a jovial reading of a letter from Matteo Codignola, the Italian translator of Barney's Version, but he came off like Roberto Benigni hamming it up at the Oscars, perpetuating a silly stereotype with a broad, music hall-era accent. The way I read LoDico, her use of "wop" alluded to this, but it missed the mark. The consequence is a kind of orphaning of the word, if you like; it's unclear to whom it belongs and to whom it's addressed, and a lot of people got mad.

Now, had LoDico used the word more evidently as a critique, would Montreal's Italian media (and the McGill administration) still have reacted so negatively? That would be speculation, but over the years it's been impossible to ignore the tone-deafness of both ethnic communities and university campuses to irony, to dry wit, to squibs and, I'm afraid, to the value of telling it like it is. While pop culture has boldly gone where academics and minority representatives tended not to dare, appropriating terms like "queer" and "bitch," you could always confidently expect some well-meaning ninny to squeal over, say, "niggardly" because they were too offended to look it up in the dictionary. (And while we're on the subject of empowerment-appropriation, let's remember that the writer under siege is named Maria Francesca LoDico? As a reputed self-hating Jew and anti-Semite, Mordecai would have loved that one.)

In the end, this has little to do with intelligent pursuits such as parsing, exegesis, literary or reporting style, and more with public relations in an atmosphere poisoned by decades of political correctness, lawsuits, corporate imaging and furor over The Sopranos. Given the perfectly obvious tone of voice of LoDico's article, I can only accord this fuss the same seriousness as the National Scrabble Association's squeamishly striking the verb "jew" from their official dictionary -- under pressure from Hasbro, who'd received complaints from the Anti-Defamation League, they deemed it derogatory along with 175 other words including "fatso" and "papist" -- the result of which has been not the degradation of the English language or any sort of constraint on freedom of speech, but a society of players who are a whole lot less fun to be around.

Daniel Richler
Editor-in-Chief, BookTelevision

To the Editor:

I was disappointed to read that McGill has chosen to rename the Seagram Building. However worthy the name "Martlet House," it is surely not linked as is the name "Seagram" with the little castle on Peel Street. This building, donated by Seagram's successor company, was the personal project of Sam Bronfman, whose family has been a major benefactor of McGill for decades. How appropriate it would be to recognize their contribution to the city's history by retaining the Seagram name for this building.

Laura F. Scott '75

The Reporter asked the Development and Alumni Relations office for some clarification. Here are the responses.

From Jackie Fee, administrative coordinator, Development and Alumni Relations:

We asked Tom Thompson, senior development advisor, about this. "The Bronfman family wish to revere the memory of 'Mr. Sam' by preserving key features of this building, which he built and loved; this is immeasurably more valuable to his family than keeping the Seagram name in the public eye. The name 'Martlet House' has its own proud tradition. It has always represented the home base of the alumni whose activities and support are so valuable to McGill. This gift from Vivendi and endorsed by the Bronfman Family carries on a tradition of community leadership exemplified by 'Mr. Sam' himself. They have provided McGill's alumni a new home where visitors can share a unique part of Montreal's history and its architectural legacy.

From Nancy Wells, vice-principal, Development and Alumni Relations:

The family did ask that we retain the bronze plaque bearing the Seagram name on the outside of the building near the entrance, and we of course honoured their wishes. We all agree that the plaque is a fitting acknowledgement of the building's history and original purpose.

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