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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)

The Tuesday Essay

Margaret Wente takes the offensive Add to ...

It wasn't hard to find the inspiration for my new book. All I had to do was read my fan mail.

Here's an example: "You are so out of touch with reality it is truly sad. In my opinion, you have abused your position and you should be requested to apologize to the public for misleading them."

Who wrote that? Maybe it was someone from Newfoundland, or someone who's passionate about organic food. It could have been a university professor, an aboriginal person, or anyone who believes that our greatest Canadian is David Suzuki. Many of these people have no interest in discussing issues. They just want to call me names.

"I'm not holding my breath for a response from you," wrote someone else. "The important thing is that you've read this, and it will aggrivate you."

Spelling doesn't matter when you're mad.

People also write to our website. You can read their comments at the end of my columns. And sometimes you can't. Instead you get that little note that says comments have been disabled because of too much offensive language.

Many of these people think I should be fired. In fact, there's a Facebook group called Fire Margaret Wente. It has more than 2,500 members. There's also a Facebook group called Don't Fire Margaret Wente, but it's much smaller.

I'm telling you this to help explain why I called my book You Can't Say That in Canada. It features many of the things you can't say in polite company without shocking people. This is all too easy to do. For example, just go to a dinner party in the Annex (my Toronto neighbourhood) and say something like, "I really don't see the point of recycling," and you'll see what I mean.

People often ask me if I deliberately set out to provoke. That strikes me as a really Canadian kind of question. Would it be better if I deliberately set out to be inoffensive?

I think the conventional wisdom is often (not always) wrong, and that it's important to explore the other side. As Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, says, if your column doesn't offend a significant number of people, then you've wasted the space.

But sometimes I get a response that really takes me aback. A few years ago, you may remember, there was a big fuss in Newfoundland because Ottawa had done something they didn't like, and the premier, Danny Williams, hauled down the Canadian flag in protest. I thought that was a bit much, so I wrote a column called "Oh Danny Boy, Pipe Down" in which I unwisely compared the province of Newfoundland to your brother-in-law on welfare, who's sleeping on your couch and complaining that it's lumpy. The entire province rose up in fury. The e-mails didn't stop for weeks. There were thousands of them. Danny Williams denounced me for a week on the CBC. People demanded that I be fired. Schoolteachers assigned their classes to write me letters explaining why I was a complete moron. People took out subscriptions, just so they could cancel them.

Newfoundlanders are highly creative in their invective, and they have long memories. Newfoundland and Ontario have now switched places, as you probably know. Newfoundland is a Have province thanks to oil money, and Ontario has become a Have-Not province thanks to our busted car industry. When Ontario's new status became official earlier this year, you can be sure they rubbed it in. Here's one letter:

How does it feel to reside in a Have-Not Province????? OMG, it looks so good on you to fall on hard times and be the poor relative. I laughed my ass off. Hope you are not whining about it. I could go on but I'm sure you get the point. Not many Newfoundlanders will forget your cruel and uninformed editorial. Eileen from Newfoundland and Labrador

The wonderful thing about writing for the Globe and Mail is that the newspaper always backs me up. I've been picketed and taken to the Press Council, and my editors' BlackBerries have gone off in the middle of the night with angry e-mails demanding that I be fired, but I never have been. My publisher and editors never tell me what to write or what not to write, and they back me up even if they happen to think I am dead wrong. I am very thankful for that, and Globe readers should be too. It is a remarkable privilege to do what I do, and I try to live up to it.

And on days when the letters to the editor are running five-to-one against, I have another piece of mail I carry around with me. It's not an e-mail. It's a note, handwritten in block caps, on a little greeting card. It reads:

To the editor,

I would like you to know how much I enjoy Margaret Wente's writing in the Globe and Mail. She is my kind of woman. I look for her articles. Please keep her on your staff. Best regards, G. Goodall Age 82

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