Friday, February 29, 2008

Neither The Marketplace Nor The Tribunal: When 'Intellectual Freedom' Is Betrayed

In today's Ottawa Citizen, I take another look at the Vancouver Public Library's decision to present the morbidly anti-Israel conspiracy theorist Greg Felton as its featured author for Freedom To Read Week. I'm saying there's something dangerous going on here, but it's probably not what you think:

It is not harmless in Iran, where Felton's column appears in the Tehran Times, a propaganda front for a regime that has banned hundreds of books, just in recent months, and has shut down as many as 150 publications last year, throwing perhaps 1,000 journalists out in the street.

Neither is it harmless when Felton's writings appear in the newspapers of Arab countries where there is no free press, and no "marketplace of ideas" to sort things out, and the Khazar legend has lately returned to animate the hatreds of Israel's less literate enemies.

There is no remedy available from any Canadian human rights tribunal that can hold anyone adequately accountable for this. And to accept Felton's obsessions into the "marketplace of ideas" merely grants intellectual legitimacy to historical fiction and antisemitic legend, which debases the very purpose of free speech.

In the uproar that followed the library's decision, chief librarian Paul Whitney said it was all a matter of "intellectual freedom." It isn't.

I'm saying truth matters. I'm not claiming any special insight into the truth, but what I am prepared to claim is that if our public institutions settle into a way of thinking that regards transgressive gesture as intellectual courage, and grants legitimacy to any old version of the truth, then one version will ultimately prevail, and it will be the one proclaimed by men in shiny boots.

Michel Foucault made that mistake, and nowadays, in Iran, free speech invites the lash, and puts you in a dungeon.

The problem isn't Felton at all. It's that conception of "free speech" where black propaganda is tolerated, accepted, and even welcomed. Like Ophelia Benson says, it's people "who think it’s far more important to be sensitive and respectful than it is to think clearly or tell the unfluffy truth. I don’t know what to do about them other than keep repeating, monotonously and without subtlety, that they are wrong and deluded and fatuous."


Blogger Will said...


On Foucault - for a Marxist take, I linked here to an excellent article a little while ago by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson -- well worth your time (or any other's time come to that).

1:16 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Oops -- just noticed that article you link to already, it mentions the same authors...well... now you have a link to their original essay anyway...

1:18 PM  
Blogger Wet Coaster said...

Double Standard:

"Berlin gallery shuts down exhibit after threats by Muslim protesters.
A Berlin gallery has temporarily closed an art show of satirical pieces by Danish artists after the gallery was stormed by Muslim protesters, demanding that it take down a poster depicting the Kaaba shrine in Mecca."

And more evidence that the left has lost its way:

"Ex-CBC host Avi Lewis joins Al Jazeera."

Lewis said:

“I know that Al Jazeera is a favourite target of nationalist right-wingers in the United States, but as a journalist, I like to judge things on the evidence.”

Apparently the CBC was too right wing for him. Apparently he overlooked evidence that AlJazeera regularly features shows which compare Jews to Apes and monkeys.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Wet Coaster:

The Berlin Gallery has more moxie that you credit. They only temporarily closed the exhibit so they could beef up security.



6:52 PM  
Blogger Wet Coaster said...

I didn't mean to cast any aspersion on the gallery. I guess the posting was ambiguous. My point was how intolerant the crowds were as to the exhibit. Here we politely allow Mr. Felton to spew his bile. Heck we even subsidize the space and advertise it. But just don't have any cartoons or posters of temples on the walls! That would truly be "hateful". BTW great article in the Citizen today!

8:23 PM  
Blogger Jonathon Narvey said...

These days it seems like I can't read a single daily across the nation without a Terry Glavin byline. Great roundup on the Felton travesty; Paul Whitney's inability to respond to anything you or others have written this week clearly isn't just a case of wanting to keep things quiet for the readers in the VPL.

I really wish he'd respond to one of your articles or posts, just so you'd have a little more rope to hang him with. Clearly, he has no intention of throwing his gauntlet into the ring.

By the way, excellent image to go with the post.

10:12 PM  
Blogger L said...

I am just once again attempting to design a picket sign for some hypothetical anti-Felton protest:

)))))))so let him speak!(((((((((
)))it might make him feel better about his Grandma Feltonovitch(((

5:13 AM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

I found this on a blog: although it is referring to Britain (and particularly the academic and journalistic unions that voted to boycott Israel in one way or another) , it sums up the miserable convergence of anti-semitism and wide swaths of the left rather nicely. Here goes:

"[The unions] have passed votes that show deep prejudice against Israel and, by extension, Jews. They condemn an open democracy and say nothing of the dictatorships that surround it; they focus on Israeli behaviour and make no comment on the human rights abuses that are so common elsewhere; they see Zionism as an unprecedented evil, yet support every other claim to national identity. Such outrageous imbalance passes for justice today."

from "A Liberal Defence of Israel" blog, by Irish non-Jew Dr. Denis MacEoin.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Thanks for noting that, Vildechaye.

Prof. MacEoin is a really good guy whose tremendous affection and respect for Islam and for Muslim cultures endured through a career of study and scholarship from Belfast to the chair of Islamic Studies or something at a British University, only to have his funding taken away (turned out to be Saudi money) because he taught with particular affection and respect for Shia and Sufi traditions.

His honesty about Israel won him even more enemies among pseudo-leftists who imagine themselves to be speaking on behalf of ordinary Palestinians, and his story is a sadly familiar one. Closer to home for me is the trade union activist Eric Lee, who runs the fabulously successful international Labour Start campaign. During the Hezbollah war two years ago, Lee had the audacity to suggest that if trade unionists insisted on taking sides in that conflict, they should side with a democracy and its trade unionists, and against democracy-hating clerical fascists. You should have heard they howls.

One thing that really bothers me about the tone of the debate set off by the Felton rumpus is that it's wrongly cast as a case of the inherent lunacy of the left. There is nothing inherent in it, and I would go further and say (as does Ophelia Benson in the link) that there is nothing really left-wing about it.

See also Marko Hoare's latest essay: "Right-wing anti-Muslim bigots support the west's enemies."


11:06 AM  
Blogger truepeers said...

I agree that the left need not be inherently loony, however much of it is at present (and if the pomo loons are not at least a branch of "the left", then what are they?); but is it really true that there is nothing inherently leftist about the librarians' take on Felton? If Felton had proposed a lecture with a similar kind of conspiracy theory, but substituting a left validated victim group - say Muslims, homosexuals, blacks - for Jews, would he have been given a minute of library time?

Now, leaving aside the fact that any conspiracy posing gays or blacks as secretly in charge of the US government would sound even more implausible than Felton's "anti-Zionism", any grain of plausibility in Felton's conspiracy lies in the fact that Jews are on the whole a successful people in America and there are a fair number of them in the US government.

So the question becomes, I think, where does the resentment of Jewish success (which is ultimately a resentment of the anthropological truths inherent in the discovery of monotheism) sit on the left-right spectrum, keeping in mind that the very idea of a left and a right is itself the creation of the (French Revolutionary) left; a non-establishment "conservative" like myself, a defender of universal high culture and anthropology, thinks of himself as an (often marginal) defender of the centres that allow, eventually, for decentralized democratic self-rule, not as a "rightist".

Now we know that historically Judeophobia comes from both the populist or "revolutionary" left and from the establishment elites, as well as from the middle classes aping the other two. But in the case of Judeophobia taking on the dress of "anti-Zionism", it becomes more specifically a critique of Western modernity, of the nation-state system, of bourgeois democracy, of the global marketplace, etc., a critique supposedly on behalf of those billions who still see themselves as defending a traditional order or people under threat from the global marketplace.

That strikes me as rather more leftist than anything, but I grant it can have a traditional conservative element to it too. Maybe what the Felton-Library alliance shows us is just a postmodern bureaucratic form of the leftist/populist-aristocratic alliance against the "middlebrow". Maybe the problem with the Jew-neocon is ultimately that he is the one who has come to realize that he must be a defender of the middle and the universal high culture, and must inevitably act as red flag for both traditional left and bullish "right".

12:46 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

You lost me there. But it is baffling terrain, so no shame either of us.

If what you're asking is what we should call it, that happens to be the exact question I raised in the piece I wrote for the Vancouver Sun that set this whole thing off in the first place. Without an answer suitable to appear in a family newspaper, I deferred to Martin Amis.

You go further and ask where to situate the phenomenon - whatever we choose to call it - "on the left-right spectrum," and I don't know that it matters that much; its affinities run in both directions, although I have become quite notorious lately for situating a great deal of what is proclaimed as left wing ("anti-war" polemics, for instance) on the far right.

I think you will agree with me that modern antisemitism, if that is what we're going to call it, has been almost (again, almost) exclusively a phenomenon of the far right. I've also pointed out the epistemic relativism (which is what offers validity to ahistorical nonsense with antisemitic undertones) is certainly not exclusive to the left, and is indeed inconsistent with the main currents of "left" traditions (see Benson, Sokal, etc.)

You say: "Now, leaving aside the fact that any conspiracy posing gays or blacks as secretly in charge of the US government would sound even more implausible than Felton's 'anti-Zionism'. . ."

But it's not at all "implausible" to the far right.

You've heard the conspiracist term "homosexual agenda," I'm sure. It's quite commonplace on the "right." And it is also on the right that you will find a long and sordid history of fear-mongering about blacks taking over, and all that sort of thing. These delusions are quite routinely found hand in glove with antisemitism.

Then there's the 911 Truthers - an amalgam of the far left and the far right, and in the case of "anti-imperialist," pro-Islamist activism, what you get is open alliances between the far left and the far right.

So, attempts to situate phenomena on a simple left-right spectrum can sometimes be, as you suggest, a bit pointless. Sometimes, though, it's instructive. But always, nowadays, dizzying.

2:26 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

Terry I agree the views we're discussing aren't inherently left-wing, but since the people who hold those views strongly identify with the left and some of them are among the best known lefties (ie, chomsky, tariq ali, pilger, and all the other usual suspects), how are we supposed to refer to them? I prefer to use the term "progressive" but i insist on the quotation marks, since there's nothing progressive about an alliance with intolerant, racist, medieval thugs.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

". . .there's nothing progressive about an alliance with intolerant, racist, medieval thugs."

There's your answer then.

11:17 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

Well Terry, I'm not sure how much we can clarify with this back and forth because I think we're both people who like to challenge conventional assumptions about left-right terms. This has turned into a long comment; if that's not appropriate here, just delete it please.

I think you will agree with me that modern antisemitism, if that is what we're going to call it, has been almost (again, almost) exclusively a phenomenon of the far right.

I'm afraid I can't agree... it's on both the left and right. I see modern Judeophobia as in good part a resentment of the "invisible hand" of the (global) marketplace, for which "the Jew" has been a symbol. And notwithstanding that this resentment is common among those whom the left calls the right (the Nazis), I tend to see it as just as much a phenomenon of the Left.

But then I have a very broad understanding of Judeophobia. Because of the Nazis, we tend to think of antisemitism as something extreme, but without forgetting the extremes, I see it as commonplace. I would even go as far as to call many Jews Judeophobic. I don't mean to imply that many Jews have some personal animus towards Jewish individuals, in any consistent way. I only mean that it is common to resent, often unconsciously, what the Jewish people represent in history: the founding of nationalism, the discovery and articulation of monotheism. Resentment of nationalism and monotheism is common on the left, including the Israeli left, and so there is an inevitable problem buried therein with Jewish identity.

This is revived today with the modern Israeli state whose relative economic and military success in the Middle East seems to testify to the success of nation-states and Western self-ruling democracy relative to other political forms. I would say a lot of Judeophobia today is resentment of this, common on the left where there is also a kind of Utopian desire to deny the necessity or inevitability of conflict in human affairs, something of which we are reminded by Israel's somewhat violent assertions of its right to exist. For many, Israel's obdurate refusal to bow to the dictates of "international law" or to the mediation of post-national bureaucratic elites, is a refusal of nasty rightists to get with the progressive program that will take us to the next stage of history...

Both the Nazis and the Soviets did much to spread antisemitic propaganda in the Middle East. And while I know there are certain differences between national and international socialism, I make less of the difference than mamy. The left-fascist rivalry was/is far more fundamental to leftist self-identity than it is to many an anglosphere conservative.

Anyway, the key to postmodern relativism, it seems to me, is its reliance on the victim figure. For the postmodern thinker, every would-be centre of authority or knowledge gains its centrality at the cost of a victim. There is always a nexus of power and knowledge to be deconstructed by the postmodern liberator, on behalf of the centre's hidden victims. This way of thinking creates relativism because it denies that there can be any legitimate hierarchy of values. This way of thinking is also often Judeophobic because it depends for one of its founding revelations on the Holocaust, on the model of an absolute and unquestionable victimization that puts into doubt any and all claims to authority: every kind of professional and institutional authority in the Nazi state was complicit in the crime.

This revelation becomes Judeophobic because the desire is to universalize the lesson of the Holocaust; and so the particular position or historical role of the Jews in this event becomes a problematic symbol to be overcome, by denying that the particular history in which the destruction of the Jews, and not of the other earlier or later victims of Western imperialism, served as the key intellectual revelation and turning point that hailed the start of the postmodern age. Postcolonialism, American civil rights, really gets started in the wake of the Holocaust, an occidentocentric event. And that's a problem. As the Muslim guy said at the Felton lecture, "no one has a copyright on "never again"".

In an age when the victim position is desirable, if you can claim it, because it is deemed not tainted by "Nazi"-like authority, the centrality of the Jew in the founding Jew-Nazi model is often resented. This doesn't mean a victimary leftist has to be Judeophobic. But if he isn't going to be, he needs to work through the problem in a serious manner, to understand and overcome the foundations of his victim "religion", just like a Christian can only truly meet the test of Christianity by overcoming resentment of Jewish priority and continued survival in defining the God of the Bible.

You've heard the conspiracist term "homosexual agenda," I'm sure. It's quite commonplace on the "right." And it is also on the right that you will find a long and sordid history of fear-mongering about blacks taking over, and all that sort of thing. These delusions are quite routinely found hand in glove with antisemitism.

-it's a fair point, but these are not all the same kind of alleged conspiracy. The fear of the homosexual agenda is not the fear of a small cabal secretly dictating US foreign and global economic policy; it is a fear of activists openly changing the meaning of words like "marriage" and calling for the growth of a bureaucratic state at odds with traditional power centers of family and church.

As for the fear of blacks taking over, this is a fear of cultural decadence, not a fear of manipulation by a superior force.

Racism is not all of a type. Yes, anti-black racism, along with the fear of a post-democratic American empire led by some kind of post-family "eunuch" class, tends more to the right, while Judeophobia has an audience among both leftists and paleocons.

The important difference is that the prejudices of the "right", however stupid, nonetheless suppose a hierarchy of values, while the prejudices of the postmodern left deny any such hierarchy is legitimate. For someone like myself who assumes that our political task is to find and defend those values that are conducive to maintaining modernity and our global economic system (without something like the present system, I assume nowhere near the present global population can be fed), there needs to be some hard-headed thinking about what kinds of political and/or religious values are no longer compatible (at least when they seek political supremacy) with our collective survival in modernity. And so, I too seek to ascertain a hierarchy of values. I don't take seriously crude forms of homophobia or racism, but i do take seriously some concerns with, e.g., the crisis of the family and fertility in the West. And, since I value the nation-state and even the kind of theology that is behind the existence of Israel, I may have less patience for the conspiracy of a Felton than for someone bewailing the decline of family values.

Does that make me a rightist? In my own terminology, I aspire to be a defender of the centre(s), of those sacred centres and values on which the survival of our shared modernity and freedom depends. It's a question of figuring out what these are.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Attn. truepeers:

I agree that the right need not be inherently loony, however much of it is at present (and if the pomo loons are not at least a branch of "the right", then what are they?)

Same goes...and so on...

5:07 PM  

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