In 1968, when Esquire art director George Lois asked boxing legend Muhammad Ali to pose for the cover as Saint Sebastian (a man vilified and killed for his faith), it was a brilliant commentary on current affairs. The athlete had recently been banned from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title and his passport because he refused to serve in the U.S. military due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Ali, whom Amnesty International would later refer to as “the world’s greatest conscientious objector,” suddenly found himself publicly vilified as a draft dodger, shunned, attacked by his own government, and at risk of going to prison. He never wavered, and at the height of his career, he found himself paying a heavy personal price for his religious and political convictions. Because of his stance, Ali became a celebrated icon for the counterculture generation and the anti-establishment and remains to this day a highly respected example of how celebrities can use their fame and leadership to advance just causes.
Imagine, then, my surprise when early Friday morning I found myself looking at the cover of Urbania magazine — celebrating its 15th anniversary with an issue dedicated to “nouveau Quebecois” — with popular Journal de Montréal columnist and all-around Quebec pundit Richard Martineau on the front cover in the same pose as Ali, with a reference to him as a “Quebec martyr.”
A what, now? Not only is Martineau not a martyr, he’s probably the furthest thing from a martyr I can conjure. He is, in fact, a populist bully who routinely uses his considerable platform and media reach to victimize and stigmatize Quebec’s religious and ethnic minorities, among many others. He doesn’t hold the powerful to account; he is himself a powerful man who victimizes the powerless. In other words, he’s not the anti-establishment. He is the establishment.
A martyr or counterculture hero, if you will, is someone who goes against popular sentiment, even when it’s against their best interests. Martineau has been riding the populist wave for decades, enjoying coveted and unfettered access to mainstream Quebec media, with a column in the most widely read daily newspaper, a Quebec City radio show, past television shows, and so on. Not only has the man never been silenced or suffered a day in his life for his thoughts, he’s been generously rewarded for them — both socially and financially.
Martineau, lest we forget, is the man who had no qualms about hosting a television show wearing a niqab to further ostracize and belittle Muslim women, the man who ridiculed students fighting for their right to affordable higher education, the journalist the Quebec Press Council has repeatedly found to publish incorrect information, the writer who’s bashed Muslims so often in his work that a UQAM master’s student wrote her entire thesis on his Islamophobia (she had that much material to work with). In what universe is this man the one being persecuted?
Martineau is the online version of your perpetually angry, slightly out of touch, borderline-racist uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table yelling about how “everything has changed,” and “if immigrants don’t like it here, they can go back home,” and doing it all in CAPS LOCK and a bunch of exclamation points for good measure. His columns amount to nothing more than reactionary, badly researched clickbait, written to appeal to readers who have no basic notion of some of the complicated issues facing the world today and who think 40 per cent of Canada’s population is now Muslim and busy implementing Sharia law behind our backs.
In Urbania’s “explanatory” article, the self-proclaimed martyr smugly refers to himself as an “easy target” who makes a “good punching bag.” This is the self-assured jovial tone of a person who’s not only loving the attention but has never truly feared for his safety or been concerned about the consequences of his tribune. The easy targets and the punching bags are not him; they’re the ones routinely targeted by him. Hijab-wearing Muslim women, feminists, students on strike, trans people, and immigrants have all, at one point or another, been the unfortunate victims of his misinformation and lack of empathy.
He might like to ironically say that he’s a martyr for the cause (what cause, I’m not quite sure), but that’s no reason why Urbania had to play along and validate what he stands for. A man who has been given ample space to always punch down, appeal to the lowest common denominator, and attack marginalized communities for easy clickbait should not be rewarded with more of it.
Which brings me to my last point. While I don’t think Urbania’s editorial staff were purposefully malicious with their decision to feature Martineau on their cover, I do think it’s a glorious example of what tone deafness can look like. Lack of diversity can often lead to serious blind spots in which stories are told and how they are told. When there isn’t a significant percentage of minority voices to balance things out and offer much-needed different perspectives in an editorial room, you get points of view that are horribly unbalanced and pregnant with privilege. I know some people bristle at that word, but all it means is that someone who is unaffected by something can afford to ignore it or, as in this case, casually discuss it as presenting “the other side of the coin.”
Communities affected by Martineau’s vitriol don’t have that luxury. A Muslim woman who, day in and day out, reads the columns of a man who consistently doubts her free agency and ability to make her own decisions does not have the luxury of being indifferent to the normalization of this man on the cover of a popular magazine, all while we learn that it’s the first time his daughter is seeing him in shorts.
Even if the intention was to create a deeply witty and ironic takedown of the average Quebecer who feels persecuted and of Martineau himself — which is what Urbania claimed to be doing — that never happened. Urbania had the opportunity with a companion article to do just that, but never once was Martineau challenged in that interview. It reads like a flattering profile.
I don’t personally care that Martineau has a sense of humour and that he’s a good dad. You can propagate anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist opinions and still throw the ball around with little Jimmy. I love a lot of people in my personal life who occasionally make me cringe with their politics and beliefs, that doesn’t mean I’m planning on amplifying their voices anytime soon.
While I think Martineau is considerably better than The Rebel’s Ezra Levant and other Islamophobic pundits in the rest of Canada, I still don’t want to see a major so-called progressive magazine waste time normalizing him for the sake of shock value or contrarian and edgy commentary.
Sensationalist "shock art" is meaningless when there is no end goal in sight or when the attempt at one spectacularly fails. Muhammad Ali fought for things that Martineau mocks, such as freedom of religion, so I understand why people are offended by the comparison, as innocuous and tongue in cheek as it may have been meant to be.
While there isn’t a publication that hasn’t been guilty of editorial blunders, it’s also insulting to Urbania’s readership that they continue to defend their decision despite the public outcry, instead of owning up to it.
Giving even more media space to a man who has built a career on stigmatizing and “othering” those who don’t look like or live their lives like him is not pushing the envelope. Your clever use of irony did not “go over our heads,” Urbania. We understand that you were in on the joke; it’s just that there’s nothing funny about it.