Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
PC leader regrets reaction, not words he used
Natalie Pollock has a way of getting to "gotcha" without her target even realizing he actually "got" himself.
"Nifty Natalie" is a former Winnipeg cable TV performer who now is the host of the Pollock And Pollock News Channel on YouTube, and last week she posted a 23-second video of Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister taken after question period that, by Monday, had the Opposition leader on the defensive for a change.
All Pallister was trying to do in the video was say happy holidays to everyone. But the message got tangled in the telling, primarily because of the proud, practising Christian's use of two words.
This is what he says on the video:
"I want to wish everyone a really, really merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, all the holidays -- all you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also.
"I don't know what you celebrate during the holiday season, I myself celebrate the birth of Christ, but it's your choice, and I respect your choice.
"If you want to celebrate nothing, and just get together with friends, that's good, too. All the best."
Pallister may respect the choice of people to be atheists, but his use of "infidel" was anything but respectful. At best it was clumsy. At worst it was both clumsy and contemptuous.
At a news conference Monday, Pallister didn't back down from his use of "infidel,'' which he said the dictionary defines as a "non-believer."
I don't know which dictionary he was referencing, but my Canadian Oxford Dictionary, while defining the words as "a person who does not believe in religion or in a particular religion," adds another word in parenthesis that adds context to its meaning and common usage.
Infidel is a word that, historically, has incited hatred and worse, which anyone who remembers what happened on 9/11 should know and appreciate. Apparently, a Canadian politician with Pallister's credentials, both federally and provincially, still doesn't get that.
Maybe this will help.
Permit me to introduce Lisa Alexandrin, a visiting fellow in the department of religion at University of Manitoba's St. John's College.
I asked her to put "infidel" in current context. Alexandrin responded with an email that included a reference to The New Crusades (Sells and Qureshi, Columbia University Press, 2003).
"Sells and Qureshi... point out that the term 'infidel' is indicative of cultural, religious and ethnic stereotyping current today in Western culture," Alexandrin wrote. "While it is a common belief that the term 'infidel' (as a negative term loaded with negative implications in terms of belief or unbelief) is embedded in the religious texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism (as well as their respective and inter-connected histories), Sells and Qureshi argue that this is in fact, not the case. It has acquired new meanings and interpretations after 9/11 in particular."
In any event, when a reporter asked Pallister if he regretted what he said, the Opposition leader said he regretted the reaction, and giving his opponents "ammunition."
Pallister went on to defend himself by attacking his opponents -- the political infidel, if you will -- whom he said had "torqued" or "essentially twisted the meaning of his words." That seems like a stretch given, to that point anyway, I hadn't heard the NDP comment and the only person quoted in the Free Press story was one of the "infidel atheists" to whom he had referred.
In the end, Pallister said this: "I just ask that people in Manitoba... forgive me at this time of year if they think that I have stepped on their toes, but I sincerely just meant to include everyone in my best wishes. That's all."
Forgive him at this time of year, for regretting the reaction, not the words he used? I suspect most people of every faith and no faith whatsoever will forgive. But maybe they shouldn't forget, because while I'm sure he meant no malice, Pallister's words could be interpreted as speaking to a mindset that doesn't respect people with views different from his own. Be they political or religious. And while there may always be room for his foot in his mouth, Brian Pallister should know by now there is no room in Canadian politics for potentially divisive remarks with religious overtones.
The last word goes to my quick-witted old friend Laurie Mustard, who used his Facebook page to sum up Brian Pallister's "Infidel atheists" blunder with two other words that describe what it also is:
Wish I'd said that.
Guess I just kinda did.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2013 B1
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