Ezra Levant, clever bugger that he is, has just proved once again that you can count on Canada's university crowd to behave like suckers.
This time, his tool was Ann Coulter, the right-wing comedienne and thrower of stink bombs who used to be quite a sensation here in the United States.
Levant, a conservative gadfly and former Reform Party official, made a good choice in deciding to use Coulter. She grabs attention, partly, as she herself has acknowledged, because of her looks.
It's unusual to hear a slender, elegant blonde talk trash the way she does.
At the peak of her fame in 2005, she stared back from the cover of Time magazine, sitting with those endless legs crossed, taking up half the photo.
Since then, though, the novelty has worn off, at least down here.
She still commands a loyal following among the Tea Party crowd and Fox News viewers. But most other outlets have lost interest and moved on.
Like the young neo-con Tucker Carlson in his bowtie, the act got boring.
Don't be a poopy pants
I actually interviewed Coulter once, six years ago, for the better part of an hour.
She had been writing extensively about liberal media bias and was promoting a new book. Therefore, she was available for a sit-down.
Like an earnest dope, I did my due diligence, gathering serious research on the subject and reading non-anecdotal evidence like polling data on journalistic attitudes.
Much of that suggested the media is a pretty bourgeois, fiscally conservative bunch with a deep tendency to genuflect to power and protect the status quo.
After some initial fencing, I started laying out my data and the citations, asking Coulter how it squared with her thesis that we're all socialist stooges.
She swatted it all aside, declaring herself uninterested in such facts and went on the attack. She might as well have called me a big stupid poopy pants. That's pretty much how the rest of the interview went.
After the cameras stopped, and before she hopped into her limo, she told me in a very endearing way that, really, I had to lighten up.
Basically, she was telling me, this is just theatre. Have some fun. Toodles.
Free speech for me
These days, Coulter is reportedly available for $10,000 a speech, going from one venue to another, calling people all sorts of names even more insulting than stupid poopy pants.
Ten grand is a pretty modest sum in the industry of public speaking, and evidently affordable enough for the International Free Press Institute, a group of right-wing activists for whom Levant serves as an adviser.
Now, I know Ezra Levant and I admire him.
He's a free-speech absolutist (so am I, essentially), and a proven adept at raising hell in the humourless, astringent world of academia and the industry that has grown up around speech regulation.
He generally targets those who loudly assert their own right to speak their minds, but who would blithely fine, sanction or even imprison those who, in speaking their minds, cross the lines of political correctness.
Nat Hentoff, the brilliant American First Amendment activist, distilled their philosophy nicely in the title of one of his books: Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee.
These folks are an easy target for Levant, rising as they do whenever he waves a little bait over the water.
In fact, in promoting three Coulter speeches in Canada this week, Levant blogged that "I can hardly wait to hear her comments — and to see if any of our events are crashed by human rights commission stormtroopers!"
That kind of left-wing baiting is more or less what he was doing when I first met him in 1993. Then, he was a law student at the University of Alberta and he had just pranked everyone by tacking up notices claiming the school was discriminating against Jews.
When outraged students showed up at a protest he organized, they were treated to an attack on the university's quota system, which reserved spots at the law school specifically for native students. Levant, a Jew, would not qualify for one of these reserved seats.
Predictably, native students claimed this was hate speech and, just as predictably, the dean of student affairs wrote Levant threatening to expel him.
When I interviewed him for the CBC, he was happily relishing the uproar.
Fast forward 17 years to this week and Levant had provoked another university official, this time University of Ottawa provost Francois Houle, into writing another letter.
Houle wrote Coulter even before she had entered the country to advise her of Canadians' great respect for the fundamental right of free expression.
In the same breath, Houle then warned her that Canada has certain laws governing speech that America doesn't have.
"I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here."
Take a camel
Houle's letter was promptly forwarded to reliably conservative media outlets, and U of O students began to work themselves into a conniption fit about the mere presence of this American she-devil.
Coulter, one protest organizer said, practises "hate speech. She's targeted the Jews, she's targeted the Muslims, she's targeted Canadians, homosexuals, women, almost everybody you could imagine."
By the time she arrived, police were on standby. A crowd of angry students swarmed the front door.
Finally, Levant, with an air of great regret, took the microphone to announce that "it would be physically dangerous for Ann Coulter to proceed with this event" and that "this is an embarrassing day for the University of Ottawa and its student body."
Coulter, after denouncing the school as "bush league," pocketed her fee and moved on. So long, chumps.
And Ezra Levant had once again made his point.
That point being that Canada's academy, including many of its students and professors, are a censorious, hypocritical bunch.
They will shout down and bully people they don't like, but stand by nodding thoughtfully as speakers they favour — let's say, anti-Israel activists — screech invectives that even Coulter probably wouldn't resort to.
Coulter, after all, should probably be seen as a professional entertainer and, as such, knows inchoate fury isn't terribly entertaining.
This isn't to say she isn't offensive. Telling a hijab-wearing Muslim student at the University of Western Ontario to "take a camel" if she can't get on an American airplane is pretty crude.
So are many of the other things Coulter has said about gays, Arabs and feminists. You can look them up.
But to repeat a hackneyed truth: Free speech is a worthless concept unless it applies to speech you don't like.
And you have to ask yourself: What exactly did the young Muslim woman at UWO expect, attending a speech by a self-described "bigoted, mean-spirited conservative" and then taking to the microphone to challenge her?
Instead of getting all twisted out of shape, it might have been better to simply ignore what Coulter had to say. If everyone did that, it would cut off her oxygen.
Or maybe the young Muslim woman could have just called Coulter a big stupid poopy-pants.
But, then, that would have ruined all Ezra's fun.