A number of American friends have asked to me to explain the recent “breastfeeding journalist” incident that took place in Toronto. Get a drink, friends, because the explanation runs long…and weird.
Imagine this situation: You’re the guy in the photo above.
You’re at a house party somewhere in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Toronto. A guest would later describe the event “an in-between sort of evening, neither a rager nor a formal dinner party – the sort of casual and expensively lubricated early-evening-into-night gathering that exhausted people in their 30s with small children tend to favour.” You’re there with your wife and your baby, who’s a few months old.
The baby is tired, so you decide to strap him into his car seat and let him sleep in a quiet room, checking up on him occasionally. Perhaps you and your wife take turns doing this, so that both of you can enjoy some much-needed adult conversation.
It’s your turn to check up on the baby, so you excuse yourself from the party and go to the room where he’s sleeping.
There’s a woman there. Her shirt is unbuttoned, your baby is in her arms, and she’s reaching into her bra, preparing to breastfeed.
There’s just one problem here: she’s not your wife; she’s not the mother of the baby she’s trying to breastfeed, and she didn’t clear this with either of you. She’s another guest at the party, who was seized by the urge to see what breastfeeding felt like, and just happened to find a convenient baby. Your baby.
The boorish boundary-breaking breastfeeder is Leah McLaren, a columnist for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Her specialty is writing self-absorbed columns, seemingly in an attempt to be even worse than Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City.
Quite unsurprisingly, she’s the daughter of a former Globe and Mail editor, and among my writerly friends in Toronto, her name is often used as a synonym for “unearned achievement”, “unworthy”, “nepotism”, “white privilege”, or “this is why friends don’t let friends go to Trent”, depending on the context.
McLaren is from that school of thought that says that no idea is a bad one, and no thought should go unexpressed. She once devoted a column to her discovering the joy of taking one’s lunch to work not in a designer tote, but in a plain old plastic grocery bag, making it sound like The Next Big Thing, instead of something that a lot of people do because it’s cheap and practical.
She turned her (predictably) messy dating life in London into a now-infamous piece in The Spectator titled The Tragic Ineptitude of the English Male, to which she devoted many column inches on English men’s lack of libido, at least when it came to her (it was more likely their sense of self-preservation rather than their Englishness, I daresay). Here’s the paragraph that captures the spirit of the piece, should you not want to read the whole damned thing:
The day I arrived in London, my American flatmate picked me up at the airport. During the drive to Hammersmith from Heathrow, she gave me a piece of unsolicited romantic advice. ‘The first thing you should know about English men,’ she said, ‘is that what they secretly want most in the world is to be with other English men.’
Not satisfied with mere written cultural calumny, she parleyed the story into Abroad, a CBC television movie of the week that she wrote and produced. It aired only once, on March 14, 2010. Here’s its trailer:
Worse still, she attempted to develop Abroad into a series. Luckily for the world at large, cooler, wiser, saner, more tasteful heads prevailed and the series was never made.
In 2012, McLaren pushed the boundaries of journalistic ethics by writing about the house she was trying to sell in the Globe and Mail’s “Home of the Week” feature. The paper’s Public Editor declared it a conflict of interest, but it was too late, and its coverage helped it to sell above its listing price of CAD$600,000 (USD$450,550 at the time of this writing).
Let’s get back to the father of the baby whom McLaren decided to try out breastfeeding. His name is Michael Chong, and he’s an MP (Member of Parliament — for my American readers, think of this as being analogous to being a congressman) with the Conservative Party of Canada.
Chong is one of the candidates vying to become the leader of the Conservative Party. This can be a big deal, as it brings him closer to becoming Prime Minister. In Canada’s parliamentary system, you don’t vote directly for Prime Minister in the way that you vote directly for President in the United States. You vote for the MP in your local riding (electoral district), and the party that ends up with the most elected MPs selects someone from their number to be Prime Minister. Usually, it’s the party’s leader.
As astutely observed by journalist Robyn Urback, Chong’s biggest obstacle with his ambitions to become Conservative Party leader is that he’s too well-adjusted. The other candidates are a regressive bunch, and have taken inspiration from Donald Trump; the most notable of them are Shark Tank’s asshole Kevin O’Leary and increasingly wacky Islamophobe Kellie Leitch (I’m embarrassed to say that she and I went to Crazy Go Nuts University at the same time, but I’m pleased to say that I didn’t know her).
With the exception of Chong, the current crop of candidates for the Conservative Party are so Trump-like and awful that a number of people who’d never vote for a Conservative candidate are joining the Conservative Party in order to vote for Chong and prevent one of the worse candidates from sleazing ever closer to becoming Prime Minister.
If Chong’s problem is that he’s too well-adjusted, his saving grace may be that weird news seems to stick to him mostly harmlessly, like iron filings to a magnet. On March 17, he discovered that he had inadvertently become the poster boy for a campaign for sanitary bathrooms in Guatemala:
The poster pictured above reads “A special service for special people like you!” and promotes sanitary, hygenic bathrooms. It seems that the designer for the poster Googled for a photo of a clean-cut, trustworthy guy, found Chong’s pic, and used it, thinking “Who’ll ever find out?” They’ve been using that picture of him since 2015!
That designer forgot that Canadians are world-class world travellers, and vacationing politically Canadian Bailey Greenspon saw the poster and tweeted it to Chong:
Having a small stroke. @MichaelChongMP, your stock photo is reassuring public washrooms users in Guatemala pic.twitter.com/AAcFeIz5cC
— Bailey Greenspon (@baileygreenspon) March 16, 2017
Chong’s reply was brilliant:
My to do list today:
a) winning the CPC leadership
b) ensuring clean public washrooms in Guatemala #cpcldrhttps://t.co/GOf61MlbLQ pic.twitter.com/sl4NrWwwM6
— Michael Chong 🇨🇦 (@MichaelChongMP) March 17, 2017
This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Canada’s answer to The Daily Show, found this hilarious and interviewed Chong, giving him lots of exposure. He handled it very well:
Here’s the thing: this wasn’t the weirdest thing to happen to Michael Chong that week.
That weekend, the Globe and Mail published a Leah McLaren column that opened with this:
Watching the dispiriting moral fumbling match that passes for a Conservative Party leadership campaign this spring, I’ve often found myself reminded of the time I tried to breastfeed Michael Chong’s baby.
To be fair, at the time I didn’t know it was Mr. Chong’s baby. I didn’t even know Mr. Chong – who is now, as he was then, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, and currently the best pick of an otherwise sad litter for CPC leader.
Those two paragraphs are the only ones that mention the race to become leader of the Conservative Party. McLaren was just using current events as an excuse to write about herself, as the rest of the article is about her, her, her, and one of her breasts. Here’s another excerpt:
I was about 25 and did not have a baby – or even a boyfriend – at the time.
And I was broody in the way that young women in their late 20s often are, before they realize that turning 30 is just the beginning of something rather than a vertiginous cliff off of which unlucky young women fall to die alone and be forgotten.
I was feeling a bit glum and distracted, so I’d wandered upstairs in search of a bathroom in which to reapply my lipstick and check my phone for random texts from inappropriate men (this was before Tinder). I walked into a bedroom with coats piled high on the bed and noticed that in the corner, sitting wide awake in a little portable car seat, was the cutest baby I’d ever seen. On the table beside him was a monitor. I smiled at the baby, the baby smiled back. Now this was a connection.
Do non-fictional, non-Taliban, non-head-injured adults think of turning 30 as “a vertiginous cliff off of which unlucky young women fall to die alone and be forgotten”? What a mess.
She picked up the baby, which was already a bad move. I don’t know about you, but I don’t pick up a baby without asking for permission from one of its parents first. Here’s what she wrote:
I leaned over and gingerly picked him up and then sat down in a chair to give him a cuddle. He felt gorgeous in my arms, all warm and lumpy and milky-smelling in the way small babies are. Somehow, my pinky finger ended up in his mouth and I was astonished at strength of his sucking reflex. “C’mon lady,” said his eyes. And I suddenly knew what he wanted.
That baby is a tween now, and I feel bad for him, because his schoolmates are going to tease him about the “strength of his sucking reflex”.
“C’mon lady,” said his eyes. And I suddenly knew what he wanted. And I of course wanted to give him what he wanted. The only problem was, I had no milk. But would it be so bad, I wondered, if I just tried it out – just for a minute – just to see what it felt like?
Chong appeared in the nick of time and promptly took his baby, merely bidding McLaren “a swift and polite goodbye” and getting the hell out of dodge. Even McLaren thinks she got off lightly. With uncharacteristic self-awareness, she wrote:
I realize now that it was wrong and rude and frankly a bit weird of me to think I could breastfeed a stranger’s baby just for kicks. I hate to think what would have happened if Mr. Chong – or worse, his wife – had walked in while I was in the act.
I think if I found a strange woman – one who was both childless and milkless – nursing my baby at a party I’d be inclined to give her a swift smack upside the head and then call the police.
Living in Tampa, I was blissfully unaware of McLaren’s article until Matt Rose pointed me to it:
Umm, @AccordionGuy, you didn’t meet Leah McLaren at a cocktail party with Michael Chong, did you? https://t.co/yTww87EERv
— Voltron of Failure (@mattrose) March 27, 2017
After reading it, I replied:
. @mattrose It reads like a scene from a hypothetical edgy “Seinfeld” reboot, starring Leah McLaren as Elaine.
— ⭐ Hire Joey deVilla! (@AccordionGuy) March 27, 2017
Unlike the Guatemalan clean toilets campaign, Chong wisely decided not to respond with humor. Here’s what he tweeted:
Incident happened over 10 years ago. It was no doubt odd, but of no real consequence. Let’s focus on the important challenges facing Canada
— Michael Chong 🇨🇦 (@MichaelChongMP) March 27, 2017
The smart ways in which Michael Chong has handled both incidents are bringing him publicity. I hope they also bring him the leadership of the Conservative Party.
As Robyn Urback says, this column is a viral gift for Chong — he might as well own it!
McLaren’s piece reminded me of Tommy Wiseau’s film The Room: a conglomeration of bad ideas and poor judgement that somehow made it past editors and other gatekeepers to became a published work that will be remembered for its awfulness. Somehow, McLaren’s editor thought it was fit to publish, and soon after, some other editor saw that it was fit to un-publish. Although the Globe and Mail have since removed the story from their site, it’s been cached here, where you can read it and squirm uncomfortably.
As with many of McLaren’s pieces, I’m left with questions that she might do well to ask herself:
- Was there a point that you were trying to make by telling this decade-old story, other than “Look at me, I’m special, and I’m tangentially connected to current events!”?
- Would any good come about from the publication of your story?
- Did you think the baby that you tried to breastfeed without permission or his parents would appreciate being named in the story?
- Did you think you’d still have a job — or at least not be the punchline of a lot of social media jokes — after this story? (Actually, this the Globe keeps plagiarist Margaret Wente on their payroll, an actual journalistic wrongdoing versus something that’s just weird and mostly harmless, so McLaren should be safe.)
As for McLaren, the Globe and Mail has suspended her for a week, and she’s not permitted to comment on the column or her suspension. They should suspend her editor.
If you’re an aspiring columnist (or even “just a blogger”), you’d do well to read Drew Brown’s piece in Vice, The Five Signs You’ve Written a Bad Column. It may be even more important to writers than “Strunk and White”.
If you’re an aspiring editor, you’d do well to read this Walrus article: The Globe’s Hypocrisy Is Showing Through Its Starched Shirt, which features the subtitle “Hit-hungry editors encourage confessional journalism. But when things get too hot, they let writers like Leah McLaren take the fall.”