Veteran newspaperman Neil Reynolds died last Sunday at the age of 72. He and I share two cities: Kingston, Ontario (where each of us was born), and Vancouver, where we both lived from 2000 to 2003. During that brief Vancouver interval when Neil edited the Vancouver Sun, he hired me as an occasional columnist to supplement the work of my friend, the estimable journalist Doug Todd.
And then Neil fired me.
Before my first column saw print.
Yep. The week my first column was due was the week Islamist extremists flew planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. In the very early days after those events, denunciation was thick in the air and explanation was thin on the ground. So I drew on my background as a teacher of world religions and of history to suggest that the terrorists were not demons, but human beings with discernible motives rooted in longstanding grievances against the United States among Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.
That particular interpretative line seems utterly commonplace now, doesn’t it? In fact, I wondered if the Sun editors might refuse the piece as making too obvious a point.
Oh, boy, no. Neil was furious at what he saw to be an utterly insensitive failure to speak properly in the aftermath of this horror. He killed the piece and said I was no longer welcome to submit anything else, if that was the kind of moral obtuseness I would continue to demonstrate.
I thought about things a bit. I was pretty sure Neil was wrong. And I waited a few days.
Within a week, major newspapers were carrying columns making the same point I did and, as you know, 9/11 opened up a whole new program in public education about Islam, Middle Eastern troubles, American interference overseas, and the like.
I got back in touch with Neil and suggested we talk in person. I am glad to report that he agreed to do so, and we had a very pleasant breakfast across the street from the Sun‘s building. We patched things up between us, I told him I appreciated that I might well have been rushing his public by my column, he kindly agreed that he had overreacted, and we parted on friendly terms.
It’s a pity that the one story I have to tell about Neil is rather negative. But I have always appreciated that he saw the importance of integrating religion into public discourse by way of public media. And I came to appreciate his passion…not only for journalism, but for virtues like decorum, fellow-feeling, propriety, and the like, virtues that are the opposite of what most journalists seem to trade in nowadays in the wake of disaster.
Now that I think about it, though, I have a second Neil Reynolds story. This one involves the local amusement park, Playland, launching an ad campaign for several new rides. The names of the rides and the campaign to boost them all ripped off items in the Christian apocalyptical repertoire: “Hell’s Gate,” “The Hellevator,” and the like. The ad campaign, launched tastelessly on Easter Weekend, featured billboards and broadcast spots full of ominous symbols: “666,” flames, and the like. Ho, hum.
I ignored it all for a while, and then one day thought: “Hmm. That’s not very multiculturally sensitive, is it? In fact, it is inconceivable that any other religion’s lore would be exploited like this without reaction.”
So I contacted that same Doug Todd and asked him if he’d noticed the campaign. Doug said that, now that I mentioned it, he had. I replied that I would submit an op-ed piece to the Sun if he didn’t want to deal with it, but he did. In fact, he then ended up interviewing me as a subject under the heading, “Why We’re Not Going to Playland This Year.” For our family had indeed chatted about it, on our back deck that overlooked, yes, Playland in East Vancouver. And when our youngest said he wouldn’t want to go this year “because Playland is making fun of God,” and I told Doug, Doug was off to the races.
Fine. Another sensible column from Doug Todd, Champion of Multiculturalism.
But then Doug said that his boss, Neil Reynolds, had gotten wind of the story and insisted on foregrounding it. In fact, it ran as the cover story on the Saturday edition, with a colour photo of our family in front of a Playland sign trying not to look like fundamentalist killjoys while also striking just the right pose of righteous indignation.
A media storm blew up for a week and then some. I went on four or five radio shows (one or two of which also featured our eldest son to get the “family” angle) and Playland’s marketeers had a bad, bad time of it. The public, and the interviewers, were almost entirely on our side. The majority of callers? “I’m not religious myself, but I think it’s outrageous that Christians have to put up with this crap….” Multiculturalism had actually blossomed in the Lower Mainland and people really were wanting to treat Christians as fairly as anyone else. It was quite an experience.
And I owe it—all of us owe it—to Neil Reynolds, who put it on the front page. How many editors in Canada would do that today?
This rambling reminiscence probably should have stopped there. But there is a funny little postscript I have to add.
One of the editors I think would actually pay attention to something like this today is my distant cousin and namesake, John Stackhouse of The Globe and Mail. And why do I think so? Well, partly because he did pay attention to it.
He happened to be in Vancouver at the time of the Playland furore researching and writing his book, Timbit Nation. And if you look up the chapter on BC, well, you’ll find the Stackhouse family not going to Playland….
God bless, then, the gatekeepers of public knowledge and conversation. Neil Reynolds set a high standard, and I remember him fondly.