A witty friend of mine once called her husband at work, and after only a few seconds asked, “Who’s in the office with you?” He was in fact with an important client. Later, he asked how she’d known he wasn’t alone. She replied, “Because you were speaking to me like someone who hasn’t shared my bed for thirty years.”
The anecdote springs to mind whenever a public figure I know sacrifices spontaneity on the altar of image. As, for instance, in the tweets of Michael Coren, the well-known, formerly Catholic conservative polemicist, who—after a few flights and returns—finally left the Church for good after a Damascene, LGBT-rights inspired epiphany.
Coren is an extremely intelligent guy, and in his former persona was, when I engaged with him in TV and radio interviews, a funny, quick-witted and provocative interlocutor, even if—Michael being a natural soliloquist—his humour could be cutting. He once wore a burka on his Sun News TV show to express disdain for female cover. And his disapproval of gay marriage could be scathing. According to lesbian activist Susan G. Cole, Michael “suggested I was guilty of child abuse for parenting a child outside the traditional norms.” He was sued by Tobago-born poet and activist NourbeSe Philip when, during his stint as a CFRB host, Coren referred to her as a woman “with something like a dirty tea towel wrapped around her head” who has “done nothing but defecate upon this country.”
But now that he is studying to be an Anglican priest, the exuberance, the edginess and the intellectual sparkle are gone along with the universally decried misdeeds, their place taken by seamless serenity, faultless humility and more-sorrow-than-anger chagrin over the wretched ignorance of former comrades whom he pro-actively forgives (“Bless!”). Now Coren’s tweets, which I ponder with wonderment, invariably present as if someone important to him is, so to speak, in his office with him—a future biographer, perhaps, for whom he is laying a trail of reputation-laundering breadcrumbs?
I say “wonderment,” because while I don’t doubt his values conversion, I do wonder if it is possible for a change in beliefs, however humbling the experience, to actually effect a dramatic change in personality. I have studied the intellectual trajectories of several polemicists, whose early careers were devoted to the advancement of leftist ideas, and who then, staggered by their particular epiphanies, pivoted hard right, spending the rest of their careers exposing the deficits of their former belief system.
All are fierce and formidable leopards—Canadian poet David Solway, heavyweight American conservatives Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz – who began tracking fresh quarry when they recognized their intellectual error, but with their personality spots, including the big egos, still firmly in place. Notably, all three left the “comfortable pew” of the left-dominated academy and media in order to beat against the cultural current.
By contrast, although Coren positions himself as a martyr for lost writing gigs in Catholic quarters, his conversion brought him from the cultural margins to fresh opportunities in the extremely comfortable mainstream pew of political correctness. When CFRB fired him, Coren took public comfort from the “thousand emails” he received in support. Nowadays Coren tracks his support on Twitter assiduously, taking satisfaction in Twitter’s “blocking” function to minimize all possible harshing of his new mellow. Yet one suspects the old choler lurks not far beneath the unfailingly courteous mien. (Does he realize that once he is a priest, he will not be able to “block” his more irritating parishioners?)
Justin Trudeau, whom Coren could have, and would have eviscerated in his previous persona with one hand tied behind his back, is now the apple of Coren’s eye. No image-burnishing photo op Trudeau organizes is too trivial to forego positive comment. Last week Coren tweeted plaudits to Trudeau for his glad-handing of patrons of a Vancouver gay bar, as if this were a daring or even noteworthy political gesture fourteen years after the legalization of gay marriage.
I get that he needs to keep kissing the gender identitarian ring. His LGBT highly public rap sheet, plastered all over the Internet, is lengthy, and would normally be eternally damning. True, the “catch” of such a high-profile man of God is a great triumph over the loathed Catholic Church for LGBT activists. Still, one must admire Coren’s tenacity and persistence in self-abasement on this front, a pilgrim’s progress that will never end. Twitter is the new Coren’s confession booth.
Coren blames the Church as an institution for his own errors in belief on the LGBT front, and for creating great misery for gays and lesbians throughout its history. But it is neither the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Church’s fault that Christians in the Islamic world are being persecuted for their faith. So it is puzzling to me that Michael has not only backtracked on past Muslim-baiting behaviours such as the burka incident, as well he should, but even on perfectly legitimate critiques of Islamism.
In Nov 2014, for example, Michael appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to defend his entirely defensible book, Hatred: Islam’s war on Christianity. Panellist imam Shabir Ally monopolized the time to nitpick Michaels sources instead of addressing the evidence of the book’s theme. Coren quite crisply and correctly reproved him for purposeful digression. Then, weirdly, in August 2017, Coren tweeted, “I saw Shabir Ally on my flight to the UK. A gentle/devout man. I apologized to him for a book I’d written & regret. He was so, so gracious.”
Am I the only Coren observer to find this apology completely bewildering? Christians are, by the numbers, the world’s most persecuted faith group, principally in Islamic countries. Islamic doctrine is homophobic, and some Islamic regimes are notorious for the draconian punishments meted out to gays. But even apart from considerations of logic, a truly humble man offers contrition only to the person he believes he has sinned against, rather than bruiting it to the world.
We are well beyond humility here, and well into performance pietism.
Who is the real Michael Coren? Can a man with a strong belief in God (I do not question that), endowed with extraordinary intelligence, but driven by high ambition and, marbling his entire public history, a fat streak of vanity —the kind of man that, in a novel by nineteenth-century writer Anthony Trollope would rise to a bishopric at least in the status-obsessed world of the established Church of that era—truly change? Inquiring minds want to know. Because ordinary people do believe in redemption. We can even tolerate a touch of sanctimony if it comes from an earnest heart. The only sin we cannot forgive is hypocrisy.
When (defunct) Sun TV News fired Theo Caldwell from its afternoon show in 2011, and replaced him with Coren, the change was effected so hastily that rather than take a new promotional shot of the entire Sun team to announce the new lineup, they photoshopped Coren’s head onto Caldwell’s body. Coren’s head stands out, as it is too large for the body beneath it. Here, if ever there was one, is a metaphor to end on.