Ann Coulter's Ass

Americans tend to view their political leaders as either knights in shining armour, or devils incarnate. In Canada we think of our leaders as ordinary folks for the most part, and for the most part, ordinary folks a little dumber than we are. A healthy, more mature approach.

We are fierce in our commitment to free speech as well, of course, just a little more considerate of other people's feelings than the USA. We relish inveterate, even devastating iconoclastic banter, but we tend to reserve truly brutal wit for trusted friends and syblings.

That is, until a stranger behaves like a pompous ass.

Last week, American commentator Ann Coulter came to Canada.

Nice ass ... but the University of Ottawa cancelled her performance because she said Muslims should be prevented from using commercial airlines and relegated to flying carpets or camels.

Ms Coulter easily succeeded in fanning her notoriety in protocol prissy Ottawa. That would never have happened in Petty Harbour, or St. John's, however. Rather than wringing their honest hands in anxious sweats over political correctness, Newfoundlanders, would have simply changed Coulter's star billing from political commentator, to comédienne. End of story. A bit more Lenny Bruce than Bill Cosby, but a comédienne nonetheless.

Coulter wanted to challenge the idea that profiling always violates civil rights. (Don't you hate having to explain your jokes?) What irony. It was Americans who gave profiling a bad name in the first place a few years ago when Boston's finest targeted some innocent young men for no other reason than that they were black.

But profiling isn't the problem. The problem lies in how we store data.

Currently, your electronic health record probably has your name, address and date of birth stored in the same database, in the same data tables, as your eye-glasses prescription and your risk of sexually transmitted disease. Known in the identity business as 'tombstone information', these personal identifiers could even be mistakenly linked to a faulty credit rating, or an obsolete criminal record.

That is the problem.

Imagine for a moment a new scenario. One where legislation forbids governments and businesses from placing any unique personal identifiers in the same tables as service related data. In the professional data management business, this is known as 'anonymization'.

At first glance, an eye-glasses prescription, a driving record, ethnicity labels, eye colour, body type and religious affiliation might seem meaningless without personal identifiers.

Not quite. Not to legitimate profilers!

Free societies have powerful rules about personal searches. In general, legislators require public security agents, as members of the executive branch of government, to obtain a judicial warrant before they are allowed to search your home for example.

If our databases were 'anonymized', we could allow counter terrorism and epidemiology officials to profile to their hearts content using that anonymous data, until they detect a statistically substantiated pattern of risk. They could then show probable cause, obtain a judicial warrant, and finally re-combine that risky record with its personal identifiers.

With such safeguards in place, we could allow airline passenger manifests to store every reservation's ethnicity, city of origin, destination, dates of travel, and any number of other indicators deemed useful to epidemiologists and security professionals, as long as they kept that data strictly separate from actual passenger identifiers. Only if a pandemic or security alarm were triggered would permission be granted to identify the individual and contain the potential threat until it could be investigated.

Ann Coulter spoke to Canadian Muslims as irreverantly and deprecatingly as we all do when teasing or arguing with a trusted friend or beloved brother or sister. Her sin was to do it in the manner of a stereotypically rude and abrasive American tourist, rather than billing herself properly as the iconoclastic and polemical ironist (comédienne) she is paid to be.

She will milk this 'all the way to the neo-con bank' of course, accusing Canadians along the way of naïvely confusing constraints on free-speech with courtesy. And she'll be wrong. There is nothing naïve or inadvertant in it. It is called freedom of choice. A Canadian choice. A deliberate choice. A little less partisan. A little more considerate.

In that regard, Ottawa U. let us down rather badly. They should have re-booked the event as a debate and sicked John 'Sheila-Baby' Crosby onto her.


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