Wednesday 5 September 2012

l’Affaire Wong, or Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Post image for l’Affaire Wong, or Post hoc ergo propter hoc

If a mechanic replaces your winter tires and scrimps on tightening the lug nuts, the consequences — a wheel popping off on the highway — can be disastrous. If a doctor leaves a surgical instrument behind, misreads a scan, or overlooks the follow-up test result, a patient can wind up seriously injured, even dead. So what happens if a career journalist confuses correlation and causation on a sensitive file of national importance? And what if, to compound the error, her editor fails to catch the mistake? And all this takes place during a fast-breaking news story?

L’affaire Wong is what happens. Out of the Blue is what happens.

I was a fan of Jan Wong’s for much of her career: her writing was consistently interesting and often extremely personal, displayed warts and all, especially her books about China and her tragic flirtation with Maoism. Now there was teenage rebellion carried to the nth degree.

I enjoyed her work during Tiananmen, had a few problems with her articles as an undercover domestic worker, munched (often somewhat aghast) on the occasional “Lunch With” column, etc.
And then there was the 2006 Dawson College shooting and her infamous Globe and Mail article on the subject. For me, that pretty much put the kibosh on Jan Wong’s appeal.

So I was intrigued by the hubbub surrounding her latest offering Out of the Blue, a book dubbed the first “workplace divorce memoir,” in Macleans. Triggering a spate of raised-eyebrow headlines, Wong’s publisher Doubleday declined the book in the final steps before publication, despite the text's having already been vetted by their legal team.

I began following the issue, was approached to write about, and was loathe to. Mostly because I didn’t want any of my meagre earnings transferred to Jan Wong’s bank account.

My son was at Dawson College on Sept. 13, 2006 — a date that “lives in infamy” in my overloaded cranium, I’m afraid — and I’ve written about it, too. But my concern was the necessity for more and better gun control — Quebec’s infamous mass murderers Lepine, Fabrikant, and Gill all managed to purchase their lethal weapons legally, and I continue to wonder why our society allows guns to be so easily accessed (the shootings at Club Metropolis, during Pauline Marois’ acceptance speech, may raise the question anew).

Unlike Jan Wong, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the “why” of the shootings — I remain convinced these men were seriously mentally ill. I didn’t care whether Mr. Gill had been refused admission to Dawson (he wasn’t) or was a bullied or abused child (who knows)? But nothing excuses murder.

To me, all murder is hate crime. Unlike Wong, it never occurred to me to ascribe the tragic actions of these men to “racism,” Quebec’s supposed antagonism toward “les autres.” But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I compromised by buying the Kindle version of Wong’s book, about half the price of the paperback.

Several aspects must be considered in evaluating Out of the Blue, the one-and-only (or is that the first?) self-published book to be featured on CBC radio’s Sunday Edition.

There’s the W5 of Wong’s personal narrative: what happened to her, how she felt about it, what she did about it, etc. Which, as might be expected of a best-selling career journalist, is eminently readable and engaging.

And then there’s the objective part: how did L’affaire Wong — the Dawson article and the blowback from it — happen? Where does the responsibility lie? And finally, what to think of the way The Globe and Mail treated what happened next?

I call the first of these considerations “herstory” versus “the truth”– an over-simplification, perhaps, but rebuttals are welcome.

Out of the Blue’s premise is that the people of Quebec, and the Canadian political class, exhibited a major over reaction to Wong’s original article — the paper received a slew of angry letters, Wong received mailed excrement and death threats; her publisher informed her she had damaged the paper’s “brand”; Prime Minister Harper and Premier Charest sent letters to the paper admonishing her, and the House of Commons passed a motion demanding she apologize to the people of Quebec. All this from several paragraphs of “analysis” inferring three Quebec mass murders were a logical outcome of the province’s disdain of those who are not pure laine.

In the book, and in the clips and interviews where she discusses it, Wong treats the uproar to her article as though it was provoked by an innocuous single sentence in some 3,000 words. But she actually spent over 400 words on this “analysis.” Her point was clearly that Quebec’s emphasis on ethnic/racial purity is profoundly alienating and forms part of the explanation for Kimveer Gill’s — and Marc Lepine’s, and Valery Fabrikant’s — murderous rampages.

But those 400 words were not “analysis”: they were preposterous. Is there a single journalist in Canada prepared to stand up on her hind legs and ascribe, in public, Luka Magnotta’s (alleged) crimes to the ethnic exclusivist nature of Quebec society? No. And that’s not simply because Magnotta hadn’t lived in Quebec for very long. It’s because the supposition is, for want of a better word (and with apologies to loons), loony.

Let’s apply Wong-style reasoning to the Robert Picton case in BC. Is there a newspaper that would publish an article suggesting this savage killer’s actions were linked to, say, British Columbia’s having accepted too many Asian immigrants (after all, immigration from Asia increased, and then Picton killed many women, so…)? I don’t think so. And not just because it would be politically incorrect to do so.

It’s because B following A doesn’t mean A caused B. Or “Post hoc ergo propter hoc,” as I learned from The West Wing.

She describes how her brainwave arose:

On the car radio, a talk-show host was saying that all three of Canada’s campus shootings had occurred in Montreal. That’s right, I thought with surprise, but why?… ‘A lot of people are saying: why does this always happen in Quebec?’ Jay [Bryan, of The Montreal Gazette] said. ‘Three doesn’t mean anything. But three out of three in Quebec means something.’…Like epidemiologists who look for patterns in the outbreak and spread of diseases, reporters also seek meaning in chaos—except we must do so on deadline. Three out of three was statistically meaningless, but not in a business where we grasp for any pattern. For journalists, three is a magic number: it’s a trend.

Here is how that trend was described in her 2006 article, “Get under the desk”:

What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it’s affected immigrants, too. 

To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.

Okay, so in 2006, according to Jan Wong, Montreal is no longer cosmopolitan, Quebec is racist, and Wong has no real understanding of mental illness. Wong committed a cardinal sin of journalism: in the absence of any tangible evidence, she confused correlation and causation. Her article was marred by a breakdown in the professional integrity journalists must be governed by.

There is trash journalism — of Geraldo or Fox News ilk — and there’s serious journalism. Unfortunately — for us and for them — on that day in September 2006, “under deadline” and in the thrall of a civic tragedy cum sensational news story, Jan Wong and Edward Greenspon briefly seemed unable to tell the difference. That neither of them works at The Globe and Mail any longer may not be a coincidence.

By the end of Out of the Blue, Jan Wong still can’t accept she was the author of her own misfortune. Instead, she writes, “like a plot device in an Ian McEwan novel, one random occurrence had set off an inexorable chain of events and everything changed.”

But the event wasn’t random. In my opinion, it was generated by Jan Wong’s poor judgement. And her editor’s.

But enough about L’affaire Wong. What about the rest of the book? Does Wong dish that “dish best served cold”?

Does she ever.

Wong commands our sympathy by launching her tale with a poignant scene: the author cowering in her car outside her home, convinced that a pickup truck parked nearby shelters a homicidal maniac–a Quebecer bent on revenge for her Dawson article. This is a delusion, of course. But as a literary device, it works.

Wong uses unnamed co-workers — and a dead woman — to establish that The Globe and Mail’s was a toxic work environment. The late Val Ross, Wong’s friend and colleague, along with two other women co-workers, “had been sick from work-related stress. Val told me she had been taking antidepressants for years…‘It’s the only way I can stand working here.’”

(Of course, the fact that a significant proportion of women in middle age are on antidepressants should also perhaps be noted.)

Wong’s descent into depression is recounted in excruciating detail. And, despite her explanation of a journalist’s near-compulsive note-taking, her behaviour demonstrates a degree of functioning still hard to reconcile in one supposedly so overwhelmed with depression she could no longer work.
Viewed from Wong’s point of view, the devastation that follows her 2006 article is understandable — extreme and total. But viewed from The Globe and Mail’s perspective: Wong maintained she was unable to work for them, could not write for them, for years. On the other hand, she could manage, contemporaneously, to polish off a 90,000 word manuscript while on a couple of months of unpaid leave. And mount a successful tour in support of the finished book.

Who can blame The Globe for being a little tetchy about that, or about the notion that her doctor-prescribed peregrinations to Europe and China — what she calls “the geographic cure” —  are a reasonable treatment for depression? Of course, she might say, “But look, I got better using the geographic cure.” In which case, one might reply, “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.”

Finally, Out of the Blue is, I am sorry to have to say, poorly-researched. For example, this early clunker that I noticed immediately, about that fateful day back at Dawson College:

Kimveer Gill had shot twenty people. It could have been much worse, but two rookie police officers arrived by chance on a drug-related tip three minutes after he began shooting. Veteran cops might have waited for backup. The rookies drew their guns and rushed into the cafeteria. Gill stopped shooting.

Wrong: charging in to confront a shooter had become standard operating procedure for police by 2006, as a cursory Internet search immediately reveals (I also remember reading about it back then). The method had been developed following the Ecole Polytechnique shootings: the then-established police practice–establishing a perimeter and waiting for SWAT backup — was one of the reasons the Polytechnique toll was so tragically high — 14 women murdered, 14 others injured.

In fact, Montreal police said the Dawson College incident was the city’s first true test of its revamped emergency response plan.

Deputy police chief Jean-Guy Gagnon, the senior officer in charge last Sept. 13 when Kimveer Gill killed one person and injured 20 others, says…”We can see a big evolution from the Polytechnique event to the Dawson event, the first responder applied exactly to our training program,” Gagnon said…Since the rampage at the Ecole polytechnique in 1989, police officers were trained to identify the suspect or source of danger and isolate it. For 18 harrowing minutes, five Montreal police officers kept a trenchcoat-clad Gill pinned in a corner, allowing Dawson students to escape unscathed. This is the reason we only have one death on that day,” Gagnon said. (Canadian Press article from Sept. 12, 2007 “Montreal cops learning from Dawson and two other school shootings.”)

A front page article in Kitchener/Cambridge/Waterloo’s The Record published the same day as Wong’s original piece, “Local police were doing simulation of rampage,” carries similar information.

Then there is her unquestioning reliance on the report by Montreal psychiatric researchers about the psychological impact of the event on the school’s survivors, which she mentions in part to underline how she isn’t the only person to have been traumatized by the Dawson shootings: “The study found they suffered psychological damage at a rate two to three times higher than that of the general population, and that the trauma increased with proximity to the shooting.”

Logical, perhaps. But unscientific in the extreme.

What neither Wong nor Dr. Warren Steiner, head of the McGill University Health Centre’s psychiatric department and point man for the study in the English press, come clean on is that the study analysed the responses of 949 volunteer respondents; I know they were volunteers because my son was approached to participate and refused.

Dawson College has some 7500 day students, another 2500 evening students, and many hundreds of teachers and support staff. There were, literally, thousands of students and staff present at the CEGEP on the day of the Kimveer Gill shootings. Is it likely that the 949 people studied represent a random selection of those exposed to the violent events? Isn’t it reasonable to assume these self-selected respondents are, in fact, probably much more likely than the average person present to have been traumatized by the violence? Who knows how many of these 949 people were on the psychologically less copacetic end of the spectrum even before the rampage of Sept. 13, 2006?

The bottom line on Out of the Blue: Wong’s book-long skewering The Globe and Mail for firing her reminds me of the standard definition of chutzpah: a young man who murders both his parents throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Nothing justifies ethnic slurs, hate mail, or death threats, but L’affaire Wong was the result of decisions made by Jan Wong and her editor. Her remarks, which she neither takes back nor seems to regret, revealed an appalling ignorance of and lack of respect for Quebec society. Not to mention the sort of pseudo-intellectualizing that would have been shot down in a CEGEP term paper.

Probably Wong’s editor Edward Greenspon should have borne the brunt of Quebecers’ ire. Her writing crossed the line, and a tight deadline doesn’t excuse a seasoned journalist’s provincial character assassination. It was her editor’s job, though, to rein her in, to correct her lapses. And his failure was epic.

That said, who could then deny that The Globe and Mail had a duty to support Wong for an illness contracted during her employment with them, a result of said employment? No one. Which is, perhaps, why the paper eventually settled with her. And yet it’s hard to blame The Globe’s insurer, Manulife Financial, for having a hard time accepting that she was ill, and that “the geographic cure” — world travel — is a bona fide medical treatment for depression.

Wong now spends part of her time in Fredericton, teaching journalism at St. Thomas University. She also writes for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. A few years back, that paper laid off a quarter of its newsroom staff. In 2011, many of its freelancers quit after they refused to sign a new, mandatory, all-rights grabbing contract.

Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer; her story collection, The Meaning of Children, winner of the David Adams Richards Prize, was recently published as an e-book.

This article originally published on The Rover


  1. Good piece Beverly. My oldest son and my daughter were students at Dawson at the time. My daughter was there and called me in a panic. We could not get hold of our oldest son for 45 minutes. A frightening 45 minutes. Luckily, he was not at the school, but at another one, visiting friends.

    My daughter also refused to participate in the study, as did many of her friends. She won't talk about that day any more.

  2. Thanks for sharing your family's experiences. My son is also a bit touchy about the episode. I don't think he's been psychologically harmed, but I can understand not wanting to be part of something that makes it seem like some huge stigma. I think the findings were way off, for the reasons mentioned. Sad to think people are, in part, making a career on the backs of those who lived through such a tragedy.