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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Why on earth did I say that? Add to ...

No columnist should make predictions, because invariably she'll wind up looking stupid. But sometimes I forget.

"Something fundamental in the culture has changed," I announced in the early days of last year. You remember those days. We were gazing into the financial abyss. The car industry had collapsed. Stocks and real estate had fallen off a cliff, and we all felt a little poorer. I solemnly declared that a whole new era of frugality was at hand. "All my itches have been scratched," I said. "Besides, we've got too much stuff as it is."

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The moment I wrote that, stocks and real estate stampeded back, and consumers headed for the malls again. The new era looks a lot like the old era after all.

I've said my share of stupid things this year. Readers won't let me forget them. Possibly their most irate reaction was to a piece I wrote in September on " why professors don't teach." It argued (quite defensibly, I thought) that today's professors spend too much time researching and too little time teaching. If only I'd stopped there. Instead, I went on to quote someone from a large provincial university who told me that his colleagues "do everything they can to get out of teaching." Then I really stuck the knife in. "They'd rather not have the students around, because they'd rather do research and stand around and sip sherry." I went on to assert that a lot of academic research winds up in "unread quarterlies" and is basically a waste of time.

Then the e-mails began pouring in.

"It's 1 in the morning and I am bleary-eyed from grading essays for the past 14 hours," one typical message read. Dozens of professors described their dreadful workloads, their 60-hour weeks and their selfless dedication to academic excellence in a world of dwindling resources and budget cuts. "If Wente had handed in that piece as an assignment at any university in Canada, she'd have received an F," said one. Others sarcastically denied that they have ever touched a drop of sherry. My informant (whose name I shall not repeat) did not escape unscathed either. He was denounced by the dean in front of the entire faculty.

I had it coming. Never stamp an entire identity group with a tired old cliché. (I'm still apologizing to everyone in Newfoundland for doing that.) I ought to know by now that cheap cracks, like cheap sherry, will give you an awful headache the next morning.

Conrad Black once said that in his opinion, a very large number of journalists are "ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised." You'd be amazed at how many readers think this applies to me. (Or maybe you wouldn't.) "I rarely read your column," one of them wrote recently. "I find what you say so often unfounded, inaccurate and generally irritating, that I stopped." He wanted me to know that he had read my latest one, and it only confirmed his opinion.

What riled him was a highly critical piece I wrote on organic farming. In it, I stated that organic food is no more nutritious than ordinary food, that only the elites can afford it and that if the world's food supply went organic, millions of people would starve to death. Countless readers vehemently disagreed. The fact that I, personally, am a faithful consumer of locally grown organic food didn't spare me their wrath. The man who runs the organic farm I buy my carrots from wrote a long, impassioned letter to the editor explaining just how out to lunch I was. I was terrified that he'd cut me off. (So far, so good.) I haven't changed my views. But I have developed a healthy respect for the deep environmental commitment of people like him, even when we disagree.

I'll try not to gratuitously insult too many people next year, or make too many stupid, sweeping statements. If I slip up, I'm sure somebody will let me know. They always do.

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