Given that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has been having a problem with the optics of his responses to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he certainly wasn't helped by an attempt at political correctness at the Canadian Museum of Civilization that backfired in a very public way.
What is particularly surprising is that the faux pas was initiated by one of the most senior cultural bureaucrats in the federal government, the museum's president and chief executive officer, Victor Rabinovitch. In an earlier role at the Department of Canadian Heritage, Mr. Rabinovitch earned a reputation as one of those rare bureaucrats who was prepared to stick his neck out on behalf of the arts.
He has certainly stuck his neck out this time by indefinitely postponing an exhibit of the work of 26 Arab-Canadian artists that was supposed to open at the museum next month. Reportedly, Mr. Rabinovitch and his curators decided that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the exhibit needed "more context."
As several people tried to warn Mr. Rabinovitch, the decision provoked outrage, not only from the Arab-Canadian artists, but also from a swath of MPs, including those such as Syrian-born Sarkis Assadourian who have a Middle East background.
The exhibit has been in the works since 1996; to cancel it on the basis that some of the material might upset non-Arabic Canadians shows either a lack of judgment today, or a complete lack of judgment on the part of the curators assembling the material for the past five years.
Under extreme pressure, the museum has now said it will reschedule the modified exhibit for March. But, as the Prime Minister himself told the House of Commons, "If it's good for March, 2002, it's good for October, 2001."
One of the reasons Mr. Chrétien is so furious is that the postponement sends exactly the opposite message to Arab-Canadians and to the public at large from what he has been trying to convey in the wake of several incidents of violence or hate-mongering directed at Arab-Canadians after the Sept. 11 incidents.
Mr. Chrétien has tried to put maximum distance between those who terrorize in the name of Islam and the Canadian Muslim community. He told worshippers at an Ottawa mosque a week ago that he was ashamed as Prime Minister that these attacks had happened. In Toronto on Monday, he again talked about the tolerance for the country's multicultural mosaic. Indeed, the government spends $16-million a year on multicultural programs and has appointed a minister of state specifically to promote that tolerance.
What has happened here illustrates dramatically the dangers of political correctness. The exhibit was originally titled The Lands Within Me: Expressions by Canadian Artists of Arab Origin. Given that land is the fulcrum on which the Arab-Israeli conflict teeters, it is not surprising that some parts of the exhibit might reflect an Arab view that they have been driven from their land.
To give the museum the benefit of the doubt, some of the video references might be interpreted as endorsing violent aims. I don't know since the museum refuses to let journalists see the exhibit. But Laura Marks, who teaches film studies at Carleton University and is contributing to the catalogue, has seen most of the planned exhibit.
"Some of that stuff does touch on political issues," she said. "But I do think this is a work that is teaching, generous and beautiful and would help with intercultural understanding at a time when we need it."
Isn't that what a museum of civilization is supposed to do?