There is a saying in politics that when you’re explaining, you’re losing. So it should be an extraordinarily bad omen for Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, in the early days of her election campaign, to be forced to declare: “The Parti Québécois is not an antisemitic party.”
The defence was necessary after the clearly written views of one of Marois’ candidates became widely known last week. Louise Mailloux, a college philosophy instructor and Montreal-area Parti Québécois candidate in the April 7 Quebec election, is a staunch supporter of the PQ’s secularism policy. The party is proposing a Charter of Values that would prevent displays of religious affiliation – kippahs, turbans, hijabs, for example – by civil servants. The crucifix that stands at the front of the Quebec National Assembly would remain, interpreted by the PQ not as a religious statement but as a symbol of the province’s cultural heritage. Likewise, presumably, the enormous illuminated cross that bears down over Montreal from atop Mount Royal.
Mailloux, however, goes somewhat further than most secularists. One might call her a secular fundamentalist. She has written that circumcision is equivalent to rape. (In fairness, she said the same thing about baptism.) A particular interest of hers is kashrut, which she has called “robbery,” a “rip-off” and a “tax” paid “directly … to the synagogue.” (She says the same about halal certification.) She has demanded that kosher and halal products be banned because, she believes, they artificially inflate prices and the revenue from certification goes to fund “religious wars.”
It’s useful to be reminded of the kind of ideas that emerge from those with animus toward identifiable groups. A moment on the darker reaches of the internet reminds us that the nature of bigotry quickly twists into convoluted, bizarre and arcane conspiracies. There is an increasingly small market for ideas that express outright hate. That may have worked in past eras, but people and society have changed. To gain traction, such expressions now require some imagination. The “kosher tax” conspiracy theory is an ideal example. Take an issue about which the general public has only the vaguest awareness and build a dramatic and devious story around it. But this story is not new. It’s been most prominently pedaled by the Ku Klux Klan. Yet it is not as fringe an idea in Quebec as we might like to believe. When a provincial commission looking into “reasonable accommodation” of minority rights in Quebec, the Bouchard-Taylor commission, delivered its report in 2008, it explicitly mentioned the “most fanciful information … circulating among Quebecers” about kosher food. (In fairness, the Bouchard-Taylor hearings showcased an encyclopedic array of bad ideas held by Quebecers about a whole range of minority groups.)
When Jewish organizations heard of Mailloux’s views, they reacted with predictable outrage. In a party press release, Mailloux apologized – just not for her ideas.
“I never wanted to offend or hurt anyone,” Mailloux said. “If that has happened, I very sincerely apologize.”
Hours earlier, the PQ rescinded the nomination of one of its other candidates for online comments against Islam and supportive of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But when Mailloux’s views became a top story, Marois stood firmly with her.
“She supports our secular charter and I appreciate her support,” Marois said, not hesitating to add that Mailloux “is an eloquent writer” and “I respect her point of view.”
It is always better to shine light on rancid ideas than to allow them to fester in hiding. Never more is this true than in the midst of a democratic election campaign. Given that this election campaign is shaping up to be largely about two issues – the future of Quebec in Canada and the future of minority rights in Quebec – Mailloux’s ideas could hardly have come to light at a better time. The voters of Quebec will make their opinions known on April 7.
Of course, even the democratic voice of a free people does not always reflect the best of human nature. Given the tenor of Quebec attitudes toward minorities and the fact that we are discussing the preparation of meat, a dictum comes to mind not from the Talmud, but from the sage of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, who said that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.