Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dr. Dossa and our dumbing down

Some things you wish would just go away. How often must we return to discuss the delusional resentment of Israel among many on the Western left who are never able to digest or admit the plain fact that no significant segment of Arab society has ever recognized the state of Israel as having a right to exist and never will as long survives the present orthodox Islamic understanding in which the lands of Israel are deemed Dar-al-Islam - Muslim lands that, having once been conquered for the true faith, can never again be ruled by infidels without being the focus of a Jihadi struggle to win back the lands for Allah. No Palestinian leader will ever have the right, in the minds of his fellows, to sign a peace treaty with Israel that recognizes any kind of state in which Jews, Infidels, will have some role in ruling Muslims in Dar-al-Islam. No matter what Israel offers, short of packing Jewish bags and going somewhere else, will the Jews of Israel be allowed to live in peace, until this orthodoxy is defeated by some overwhelming reality.

With this in mind, how can one not admire the great patience with which the Israelis treat the Arabs of Palestine, those who have refused and been refused assimilation into the surrounding Arab states, that they may remain in the vanguard of the maddening struggle against the Infidel, sacrificing their own children to the cause. Countless wackos would portray the Israelis as Nazis for acting violently to keep the armed Arabs at bay, all the time ignoring the fact that if this portrayal were true, there would be no Palestinians about. But there are, and Israel continues in the faith that one day Moslems may choose to free themselves from the more devastating aspects of their political faith and get serious about building peace with the Jews.

In the meantime, we have all become familiar with the arguments that proclaim anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, that holding the former antipathy need not entail the latter. In abstract terms, this seems logically sound. And yet, when we examine the nature of anti-Zionist arguments, we usually find that the implied problem with Israel is that it is too Western and technologically and militarily successful (an embarrassment for its often oil rich Arab neighbors whose cultural or political/ethical shortcomings are revealed in comparison), too pushy, too aggressive, too sure of itself, too keen to proclaim a special relationship with God as a model of a covenant for others to follow in creating their own nationhood. In short, once we move beyond abstract logic, we generally find that Israel is resented for being just what the (stereotypical or real) Jew has long been resented for being. Hence the protestations that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism are rarely convincing. What is a Zionist for most anti-Zionists? A dirty Jew.

At least, if you are going to try to convince fair-minded people that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, you have to put some energy into explaining how this is possible when one leaves the world of abstract logic and enters the real world in which millions of Jewish lives depend on the security of the state of Israel.

What's more, this is especially true if, say, you are someone who takes travel money from the Iranian government, and helps its propaganda efforts by attending Iranian state-sponsored conferences, a state that has repeatedly expressed extreme hostility to the state of Israel. In such a case, it is only fair that you should have to do a lot to convince intellectually competent people that you are not Judeophobic.

Alas, in today's Canada you can put up a rather intellectually shabby defense of your anti-Zionism and find people in high positions in the national media to report that your arguments deserve a fair hearing in an open "multicultural" society. At this blog I have often argued that invocations of multiculturalism are often not the sign of a free and open society, but rather of a nation turning towards some form of imperial or oligarchical rule by self-accrediting experts who are less interested in the world's diverse cultures as they are in keeping the peace among a migratory hodge-podge of peoples who increasingly find themselves without shared understandings about national and constitutional values and norms, as would be necessary to any form of democratic self-rule in which the experts serve the people's will, and not vice versa.

All this is by way of introduction to a question that has been slowing down the writing of this post. Must we rehash all these arguments yet again in order to voice our protest at the support voiced in some quarters for the shabby defense just published by Canadian Professor Shiraz Dossa of his attendance, last December, at an Iranian government-sponsored conference that was held to cast doubt, in some way, on the established memory of the Holocaust as it is generally understood among the world's academic elite?

We first talked about the trip of the St. Francis Xavier University professor to the Teheran Holocaust deniers' conference (a characterization of the conference that Dossa now contests) here.
In my view, there is little of substance to add to that discussion, since I find Dossa has said little new of substance to explain his trip. Yet he has come up with an "explanation" that some apparently find convincing and so we must try to support our initial doubts about the need for more discussion.

Let's start by considering the first news of Dossa's return to the national stage, the story in the Globe and Mail by Michael Valpy who calls Dossa's essay "compelling":
A Canadian political scientist excoriated for attending what was widely labelled a Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran has retaliated with a blistering published attack on his university president and his colleagues for being illiterate Islamophobes.

Writing in the influential Literary Review of Canada, Shiraz Dossa, a tenured professor at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University, said that his academic integrity and academic freedom were grossly impugned by the university administration, an assault on his reputation that he said has yet to be remedied.

He accused the president and chancellor of authorizing a "small Spanish Inquisition" to denounce him - a campaign he said was initiated by two Jewish professors and the Christian chair of the political science department.
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, likened the treatment of Prof. Dossa to the 1950s McCarthy period in the United States when academics and others were subjected to intense pressure not to attend events that were unpopular.

This is the first time Prof. Dossa has spoken out since the storm erupted over his attendance at the Tehran conference in mid-December.

His two-page essay appears in the issue of the LRC that will be posted today on its website, Although the monthly publication's circulation is small, it is widely read in the academic, journalistic, political and public-service communities.

In an interview, Prof. Dossa said he wrote the essay because he wanted to set the record straight and because he still hasn't received an apology from either St. FX president Sean Riley or chancellor Raymond Lahey, the Roman Catholic bishop of Antigonish where the university is located. He also said he has refused to speak to his department chair, Prof. Yvon Grenier, since December.

He wrote that the university administration uncritically accepted the Holocaust-denial label "concocted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center [a Jewish human-rights organization] and the [U.S.] Jewish Defence League and peddled by media outlets such as The Globe and Mail."

Prof. Dossa, a Muslim, teaches political theory and comparative politics at St. FX. His focus as a scholar has been on the Holocaust and its aftermath. He abruptly dismisses any suggestion that he is a Holocaust denier. Rather, he said, his interest has been in what use of the Holocaust has been made to promote Zionism - the right of Jews to a national homeland - and to support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

In both his essay and in a telephone conversation, he makes a compelling case for why he attended the two-day Tehran conference, titled "The Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision."
We might pause at this point to query what Valpy considers compelling about Dossa's claims since Valpy concludes his article with an apparent contradiction that weighs mightily on how one should read Dossa's justification for his attendance at an event that was well publicized in advance by the international media, such that any minimally informed person knew, before it happened, that the point of the conference was to cast doubt on the memory of the Holocaust as an iconic event of postmodern times. Rightly or not, it was suggested by the media that Holocaust deniers were to attend alongside those questioning Israel's right to exist.

Valpy first writes:
Prof. Dossa said the presenters, himself included, were invited, but he said he had no idea in advance that Holocaust deniers were on the list. He said that, until his arrival in Tehran, he did not see an agenda, something he said is not uncommon for global South conferences.
And then we are told:
He said he would not have attended a conference entirely of Holocaust deniers because it would have held no scholarly or intellectual interest for him. But a conference with five Holocaust deniers was of academic interest for him to see what kind of reception they'd be given.
Well, that sounds like Dossa did know what the event was about in advance, at least as much as anyone reading the papers. But perhaps Valpy and Dossa were at this point discussing hypotheticals in some intellectual search for best justifications for attending an Israel hate fest held by a totalitarian regime that uses hate of Israel to help preserve its own power which entails much violence towards its own people. Draw your own conclusions.

Let's now turn to the justification of the editor of the pretentious but (in my experience) intellectually boring publication, the Literary Review of Canada:
When Shiraz Dossa, a professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, got in touch with us back in April, we felt some shock, followed by acute curiosity. This gentleman had been the brief centre of feverish media attention last December, when he surfaced in Tehran as the only Canadian attending what was being called a "Holocaust-denial conference", supposedly organized at the behest of Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself and including among its attendees a number of notorious Holocaust deniers or sceptics, such as David Duke.

Four months later, Professor Dossa wanted to tell his version of the story, including the real purpose of the conference (not Holocaust denial), who organized it (not Dr. Ahmadinejad), who attended, and what he thought and felt about the all-out attack on him back home in Canada, particularly from The Globe and Mail and from his own university, St. FX. At the LRC we read his manuscript, which seemed to us a serious exploration of the right of academic freedom in Canada and who gets to exercise that right. After rigorous fact-checking that went on for a number of weeks, we agreed that the essay was ready for publication.

Academic freedom, like all freedom of speech issues, calls on thoughtful citizens to broaden their horizons. It's never individuals who are voicing mainstream or non-controversial thoughts - ideas we can all agree with - who find themselves on the wrong side of academic freedom debates. It is always individuals who are raising uncomfortable ideas that the majority would rather not hear who end up excoriated or denigrated in the media and who are left twisting in the wind by the institutions within which they work. Reading Shiraz Dossa’s essay gives us all the opportunity to confront some important and controversial ideas that go to the heart of our identity as a multicultural nation.

We hope you agree.

Bronwyn Drainie
Before turning to Dossa's "essay", I will ask you to keep in mind those words "rigorous fact checking", and also to ask yourself what academic freedom is for. You see, part of the problem with the cult of multiculturalism is that no one in authority can any longer know, or at least pretend to know, what culture or intellectual freedom is for. To know what culture is for would be to assert a norm, which would in turn be deemed oppressive of those somehow thought to be victimized by hegemonic norms. For today's authorities, it is as if academic "freedom" were a utopian end in itself, as if the end of freedom (which is something that really only exists when it is shared within a society) were not the building of some particular form of social order in which claims of freedom can be weighed against those of order and of sharing responsibly in common projects to expand human freedom. Drainie seems to imply that a happy and balanced social order naturally emerges from everyone being allowed to do their own thing, as if we don't have to defer to any common and particular purpose that inevitably values some histories more than others.

The idea that we, as a duly constituted society, or academy, might make collective decisions about academic values, scares those without a clear sense of Canadian values, or those who fear shared values. For such people, academic freedom somehow came into existence to defend the idea that anything remotely academic that a tenured prof. wants to do with his freedom should be allowed (because who are we to know what may or may not come of it). But what of those who would use our shared freedoms in causes (like those of the Iranian apocalyptic and totalitarian regime) antithetical to our shared freedom? Must our respect for academic freedom always preclude our judging the arguments of a tenured professor as absolutely beyond the ken of serious academic discussion, and a sign that one may not be worthy of keeping his job?

Again, beyond denying us a right to feel intellectually comfortable, does Bronwyn Drainie provide us any real hint of what academic freedom is for? Does it exist primarily to preserve the peace by deferring judgment on contentious issues, or does it exist to allow any and every utopian intellectual to think that his or her resentful critique of the status quo, along with vague promises of an emerging knowledge or ideology that can save us from our fallen humanity, fall within the bounds that a serious regard for serious thinking should defend?

Let's turn now to Dossa's "essay", which should not require too serious a refutation since it in large part relies on the logical fallacy of ad hominem attack, and parts of it have already been ably critiqued by Angry Steve Janke, who makes quick work of the claim that Dossa has been rigorously fact (or logic) checked by the LRC. I won't retread all of Janke's ground, so read him first and then see here what else might be said about the matter at hand. The essay begins with ad hominem:
It would be a shocking event in any university. It was doubly so in a university that takes pride in its “Catholic character.” Last December, St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, authorized a small Spanish Inquisition of its own to denounce a St. FX Muslim professor. It was launched by two Jewish professors and the Christian chair of the political science department (Michael Steinitz, Samuel Kalman and Yvon Grenier). My sin: I attended a conference in a Muslim nation on the Holocaust entitled The Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision. It took place in Tehran, Iran, in December 2006, and it was widely—and erroneously—described in the western media as a “Holocaust-denial conference.” I have never denied the Holocaust, only noted its propaganda power. Yet my university tolerated this assault on me.
But, in my reading, Dossa wasn't widely attacked for denying the Holocaust but for keeping company with the Iranian regime which is evil on so many levels (not least against the Iranian people) and with those who similarly took up the travel-paid invitation from the Iranian government to partake in what was obviously, for the government, a major propaganda event. When I first wrote about Dossa, I noted he was a fan of Chomsky, who is among other things famous for questioning all sorts of "facts" about the Holocaust, including the number of Jews murdered, in such a way as to throw into doubt the general validity of established accounts of the event. Of course he does not admit to "denying" the Holocaust, he just throws doubts on its highly symbolic status or on the uses of the Holocaust symbol in world history. That, we might assume, is Dossa's game too. As Dossa told the Globe and Mail last year
My essential point is that the Jewish loss - which is, of course, a reality, and anyone who denies it is a lunatic - the focus here is on how the Holocaust is a political construct, distinct from the Jewish loss at the hands of the Nazis. And that political construct has been used to justify certain policies by people, some of whom are Zionists. And now that whole issue plays into the war on terrorism, which is essentially a war on Islam
Here, we return to the original point of this blog post. Dossa may be able to make a distinction with some coherence in abstract logic. But the relevant question is how, not if, he questions the role of the Holocaust in historical memory. While the company he kept in Tehran is inevitably part of a fair answer, to answer this "how" question properly might require a lengthy study of his work which we cannot do unless someone pays us for time and boredom.

But it seems inevitable that we anticipate that Dossa's reasons for resenting the present historical status of the Holocaust are relevant to our defense against the resentment and delusion that all manner of Jewish historical precedence, from Moses to Auschwitz, causes in people. It seems clear enough that Dossa resents a memory of the Holocaust that makes the "Jewish loss" somehow more (or unduly) significant in world history than are other losses, even those which compete (and not without some success) with the memory of the Holocaust when their supporters call the Israelis Nazis. But resenting the "uses and abuses of the Holocaust" is, it seems inevitably, to resent the Jews for being the kind of people that led to the kind of historical resentment that led the Nazis to a profoundly revealing form of racism and genocide and modernity that is, somehow, more historically significant in this day and age than other losses (rightly or wrongly, if we can even pose the question). In other words, at a certain point of understanding, it is likely not possible really to keep separate, in one's mind, resentment of the "uses and abuses of the Holocaust in historical memory" from a general resentment of the Jews' role and existence in history. To keep the two separate, one must remain in the realm of abstract logic, and not in the real historical world.

I believe it is a rhetorical sleight of hand to deny that anyone who questions major aspects of the mainstream historical memory of the Holocaust, labeling it a "political construct", anyone whose questioning is evidently motivated by an aim to deny sympathy to the state of Israel, is not in some sense denying the Holocaust. But it is a very deft sleight of hand and to argue this point properly is not an easy proposition, as Dossa no doubt intuits. It is a tough point to make because it is not widely appreciated that a widespread historical memory of an event can emerge that is in no way either a conspiracy or a rationally refutable "political construct". A certain form and content of historical memory is an inherent part of an event as it unfolds for the first time. But to argue this fully would require an anthropological essay on the nature of human historicity - a discussion of how facts about an event and its historical memory emerge in tandem, how and why participants in an event consciously act in ways that irreversibly shape the memory of the event - and now is not the time or the place.

Suffice it to say that in an age when Israelis are repeatedly framed as the new Nazis by the left, I doubt Dossa's concern is really to get at the heart of the widespread desire for victim status in the postmodern age. He just wants to limit the victim status he implies (with no evidence) is supposedly widely accorded the Jews of Israel. While I would agree that limiting victimary status is generally a fine thing, Dossa wants to dole out victim status to the Palestinians and the martyred professor victims of McCarthyism (but he still has his job and can still get published!), which is not so fine.

Moving on, Dossa writes:
The anti-intellectual storm at St. FX was driven by two fallacies pushed by the media and the literati. The first is that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has dismissed the Holocaust as a “myth” and threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” In fact, Ahmadinejad has not denied the Holocaust or proposed Israel’s liquidation; he has never done so in any of his speeches on the subject (all delivered in Farsi/Persian). As an Iran specialist, I can attest that both accusations are false. U.S. Iran experts such as Juan Cole and UK journalists such as Jonathan Steele have come to the same conclusion.1

As Cole correctly notes, Ahmadinejad was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini in the specific speech under discussion: what he said was that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.”2 No state action is envisaged in this lament; it denotes a spiritual wish, whereas the erroneous translation—“wipe Israel off the map”—suggests a military threat. There is a huge chasm between the correct and the incorrect translations. The notion that Iran can “wipe out” U.S.-backed, nuclear-armed Israel is ludicrous.
Israel is a small country, it could be largely destroyed with one bomb. As an aside, the fact that this nonsense got past the LRC "fact checkers" should be enough to end the debate on whether fact/value distinctions can be made by an "objective" political science (they cannot be), (a debate which Dossa, as a one-time reader of Eric Voegelin, could be more open about).

Dossa is referring to this blog post by Juan Cole, which is a response to this article by Christopher Hitchens. One leftist blogger aptly describes Cole's tone here as hysterical, and out of touch with reality. I think most readers would concur that Cole is hardly strong support for anyone on this point, a curious authority for Dossa to invoke. The leftist blogger then goes on to show that there is surely no doubt that Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime have repeatedly called for Israel's destruction. Any sane fact checker would surely read this debate and come down on Hitchens' side. After all, given the array of domestic media outlets and international attention that the Iranian regime controls, if they wanted to correct a widespread misinterpretation or mistranslation of their intentions, they could very well do so. Instead, the calls of "Death to Israel" remain a standard and uncontroversial part of Fridays in Tehran. But I don't think Dossa's heart is really in denying Iran's eliminationist attitude to the state of Israel, a position which is merely orthodox in Islamic circles and nothing new. Rather, he seems furiously stuck on insisting that hatred of Israel is not Holocaust Denial or antisemitism, as if all the contempt he has received were caused by some outrageous logical error.

Dossa then writes:
The second western fallacy is that the event was a Holocaust-denial conference because of the presence of a few notorious western Christian deniers/skeptics, a couple of a neo-Nazi stripe. It was nothing of the sort. It was a Global South conference convened to devise an intellectual/political response to western-Israeli intervention in Muslim affairs. Holocaust deniers/skeptics were a fringe, a marginal few at the conference. The majority of the papers focused on the use and abuse of the Holocaust in Arab, Muslim, Israeli and western politics, a serious and worthy subject for international academic discussion.
Again, what Dossa fails to grasp is that the resentment of the self-styled representatives of the "Global South" for the West, in a conference devoted to "the use and abuse of the Holocaust" can only be distinguished from a more general resentment of the symbols of Western firstness (which include the Jews and Israel, the discoverers of monotheism, the first nation) by rhetorical sleight of hand. Those in attendance may not have been conscious of hating Jews (though some clearly were), but you can be sure they talked of Israel and the West's "use and abuse of the Holocaust" as if Israel were some kind of domineering Western hegemon controlling historical memory and conspiring to keep down the masses of the developing world. In short, they were figuring Israel, consciously or not, in terms of the stereotypically pushy, conniving, domineering Jew-American.

But the really offensive part in all of this is the great delusion that "Global South" or Muslim intellectuals who make a living condemning the West, often while living in the West or while in service to totalitarian regimes like the one in Tehran, are in any way serving the cause of the poor and marginalized in this world. What, pray tell, would a withdrawal of Western involvement in the Muslim world entail for those so isolated? Keeping in mind that one cannot have trade, development, medical, and technological ties without political involvements of many kinds, it would surely mean mass death in those large populations whose numbers would not be sustainable if cut off from much if not all of the modern world. Again, this is another topic best left to another time. But I'll just drop a link to one of my favorite essays, if anyone is interested in dropping this and doing some real thinking.

After another slough of ad hominem attacks buttressing weak arguments, while showing an apparent desire to label those who condemn Islam and the Palestinians as "racists" (as if Islam were a race) and while trying to claim Islamophobia as a form of "antisemitism" (see Angry Steve Janke's post) and the ethical equivalent of Judeophobia (another point for another day), Dossa moves on to a defense of academic freedom saying nothing more than that academics have a right to speak the truth as they see it. He says nothing about when an academy has a right to sanction its staff (keeping in mind that Dossa has only been criticized - he still has his job) or judge them for ethical stupidity or an overabundance of resentment and delusion.

Then, in Dossa's conclusion, there is one more outrageous statement that must be addressed, since it snuck by the LRC fact checkers:
Iran’s elites have protected Jews since Cyrus ruled West Asia. Anti-Semitism is a Euro-American problem, not an Islamic one. Iranian opposition to Israel and its wars on Muslims/Palestinians is ethical and political; it has absolutely nothing to do with hating Jews qua Jews.
I have little idea where to start with this. Public opinion surveys shows that antisemitism is pervasive in the Arab world, as any study of Arab media shows. I can't recall at hand a survey of Iranian opinion but does Dossa really want us to believe that antisemitism doesn't exist there too, that the regular chants of "death to Israel" are simply political and not racial? But what, in any case is a "Jew qua Jew"? Someone with a funny nose? Surely, there is no meaningful understanding of "Jew" that is not essentially ethical and political in nature; so how does one really distinguish a war against Jewish ethics from a war against Jews? Only in abstract logic, not in reality. One could be for the ethics and ideas of some Jews as opposed to those of other Jews. But to be this, one would have to recognize the legitimacy of Jewish politics, perhaps even of the state of Israel.

The few Jews in Iran - who serve in a commercial function that the present regime (as in the past) is wise to protect for it could not readily replace their knowledge and international connections - would surely not agree that having the status of privileged Dhimmis is the same as being free and equal members of the Islamic Republic. It is possible to protect Jews and to resent them at the same time. Indeed I rather imagine this is the norm in much of the world.

It is no doubt true that a lot of the antisemitism in the Muslim world today is, in form and content, an import from Europe. Yet there is also no doubt that some form of Judeophobia (as opposed to the nineteenth-century European construction of "anti-Semitism") is a part of the Islamic self-understanding, since the political religion of Mohammed clearly evolved in opposition to the historically pre-existing monotheistic faiths. Just read the Koran and Sunna and see how many times the Infidels, unbelievers, and even "Jews" are cursed.

Anyway, to say that "anti-Semitism" is not an Islamic problem today is simply the baldest of lies, or the most dishonest of word games. The evidence is everywhere for anyone who looks. I will only note, as a first thought, the standing ovation given to the hateful speech of the former President of Malaysia, Mahatir Mohamad, at the 2003 Islamic Summit Conference (for a discussion see here).

I actually have some empathy, not sympathy, for Dossa. I sense that he is an angry man, living in a mental turmoil that is only partly of his own making. However, the fact that we are all resentful and deluded, to some degree, is no excuse for our nation having leading journalists who call Dossa's rhetorical games "compelling" and invoking our need to read them as part of a great struggle for freedom. There is nothing liberating for the poor masses of the world in this sort of performance, nor for Canadian students, nor for Jews and Israelis. A growth in freedom does not come from wanting it or demanding it, in some abstract conception of "human rights" divorced from shared social responsibilities; it comes from sharing in real revelations of human self-understanding and in shared ethical covenants that expand the possibilities for all in a shared human society.

We must take seriously, however, the possibility that much of the Canadian establishment has lost any sense of what it stands for, beyond the idiotic name calling of victimary politics, and its attendant cultural relativism and false moral equivalencies. A nation is only free, the people can only hope to rule themselves, when there is some shared understanding about right and wrong, when one doesn't have to spend endless time to pretend to debate, e.g., the most ludicrous propositions about Israel. To deny this need for a shared reality, for a national Covenant, while making noises about "academic freedom" and invoking the trauma of "McCarthyism" is not only to forget that the academic left has yet to redeem its supporting role in the tyranny and mass murder that was real world Communism in the 1950s, but that it continues to play the victim game in a way that corrodes the possibility of serious thinking in our public and academic life. If this goes on, sooner or later we will fall apart into real sectarian conflict.

When we see the degrading oppositional culture of academe bring another mind into the mimetic madness of endless trials of accusation and rivalry, we really must think twice about our paeans to academic freedom and multiculturalism, especially when they don't actually prove conducive to free and open discussion about truth. And when a "rigorously fact checked" essay in a national publication allows the claim that anti-Semitism is not also a Muslim problem today, we should know that we no longer have a sufficient regard for truth or freedom.

True freedom requires some kind of shared discipline, based on a concern for shared human truths. In a truly free academy, people would grapple openly with the big theological questions, and openly weigh the pros and cons of, say, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief. But to do this, they would have to share a faith that they were collectively pursuing some fundamental human truth and not just letting every sect and camp have their turn at the front of the room, or letting every lonely and angry intellectual do his own thing.

I am not a Christian, but I have no problem in ending on a Christian note because I see the anthropological value in many of Christianity's truth claims. In a truly free academy, a guy like Dossa would not be reduced to puerile smear campaigns against "Christian boys". He would be taking on ideas that today we can only find at humble web logs, such as Gil Bailie's:
During his 40 days in the desert, Jesus was tempted to do things that would make the truth of his claims and the meaning of his existence irrefutable. He declined. His followers down through the centuries have sometimes tried to do what Jesus refused to do.

But irrefutability is overrated. Christian faith appeals to freedom and to love, both of which require the absence of irrefutability, what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the purely worldly power of persuasion." The truth of Christianity is simply Christ -- the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- the Truth that will set you free.

The kind of evidential power with which God manifests himself must be of the highest kind, precisely in virtue of the fact that it allows freedom because it makes men free. And it wants to overpower a lover that answers in freedom only in its own way -- by the evidential power of love ...
Balthasar cites Blaise Pascal as the thinker who best understood this, quoting this from Pascal's Pensées: "Perfect clarity would please reason but harm the will. The proud man must be humbled."

Balthasar goes so far as to say that "only that person can truly recognize the Messiah who knows how to keep his secret."


Anonymous said...

In his response, Dossa attacks the administration and professors at his own academic establishment, the news media, and the governing elites. In your critique of Dossa, you end up attacking the academic, media, and political establishment. I understood (and disagreed with) Dossa’s complaints. With yours, I found that many of the broader conclusions were divorced from the context. If the media had fawned over Dossa (I hardly consider the use of the word ‘compelling’ to balance the public attacks from Rex et al), if MacKay was openly hostile to Israel, or if St.FX had remained silent during the Dossa incident, then you’d have some solid support for your frequent complaints about the establishment. I don’t find much evidence in the ‘Dossa affair’ that buttresses your grand critique of society’s major institutions. Having slogged through the post (about twice as long as Dossa’s article…), I see we disagree on this point.

You also overlooked an easy counter to Dossa’s rantings. In his article, he claims, at different times, to be an expert on Iran, propaganda, and the Holocaust. As well, he claims that he did not know the conference would be a forum for Holocaust deniers.

The obvious problem here is that anybody mildly interested in Iran and the Holocaust knew back in the beginning of 2006 that the conference was part of Ahmadinejad’s public I’m-an-asshole campaign aimed at the West and Israel. Riding the wave of anti-Western anger prompted by the Danish cartoons, Ahmadinejad tried to present himself as a defender of Islam by sanctioning a Holocaust cartoon competition [], spouting off like a dick to the Germans [,1518,418660,00.html] and planning a Holocaust deniers conference []. As one can see by the datelines on these articles, this all occurred a good half-a-year before the conference itself.

So, simply by reading the newspaper, I was aware that the conference was going to involve Holocaust deniers and that it was part of a larger Ahmadinejad-orchestrated propaganda campaign. Which leads me to a very simple conclusion: either Dossa is lying about what he knew, or he’s lying about being an expert on Iran/propaganda/the Holocaust. Wait, let me back up on the. Logically, one of these accusations has to be true. Nobody who is an area/subject specialist can plausibly be this disconnected from world events. In reality, I suspect there is quite a bit of truth in both accusations. I suspect he is both misrepresenting his ignorance of the conference’s content AND holds barely more than a layman’s knowledge of politics in Iran. Just a hunch.

truepeers said...


Your point about what was known before the conference should be obvious to anyone who does a little fact checking, right? Dossa's explanation doesn't seem to hold much water in this regard. As you note, many have already pointed this out in the media.

Still, the specific question that interests me remains: why did the LRC and the Globe, through Michael Valpy, positively publicize this "explanation" in the way they did?

To answer this question (and I can only apologize to readers who are more interested in Dossa himself, but to my mind Dossa is just another sad academic case, a dime a tenured dozen) I use Dossa as a jumping off point. I am not interested in going deeper into the immediate context of his story.

The short answer to my question is that this nonsensical "explanation" that fails to take into account what everyone knew about the conference before it happened can be taken seriously in some quarters - yes, certainly not in all corners of the establishment (though how many in the establishment have called for questioning academic tenure, or for Dossa's separation from impressionable students; or do they, and this is my real target, all largely hold to tired pieties about some inviolable academic freedom?) - because of the reigning ideology of liberalism.

Pieties about academic freedom, held even among those who critique Dossa: this is my target, not that I am simply illiberal. I believe that attacking these pieties can result in a greater freedom for students and others in the shared community of ideas: a community, a nation, in which we rely on each other to make sense if we are going to get anywhere (we can't achieve much as lonely individuals with "rights"). I attack the pieties but I do not deny that in some sense there is a need for both conservative and liberal positions to be held to insure the freedom of politics.

Again, what I am against is the assumption among the overwhelming majority of the establishment (yes, not absolutely everyone) that the rules of politics and academic life must be those of present-day liberalism.

So, I am against the whole theatre of academics, pro- and con-Dossa, invoking "McCarthyism" (as if today's situation were anything like the fifties, albeit a time then when many on the left were in fact supporting regimes of mass murder and some were indeed spies for the Soviets) to explain why their right to tenure is inviolable, and that there is really nothing that can be done about ethically and morally incompetent professors if they are keeping up appearances.

I am against all the nonsense that the mainstream media can or should be "objective" "balanced", etc. If you want to discuss it, I will argue that "fair and balanced" is liberal ideology that insures the bias of the oligarchical media sphere is overwhelmingly liberal. Journals like the LRC should actively admit their left-liberal bias, and be clear why they find interesting or publishable someone's claim that questioning the Holocaust, supporting Iran, is not antisemitism. Hiding behind pieties about "academic freedom" only acts to defend nonsense, which is done, I suspect, because there is an unadmitted resentment of Israel in LRC circles.

In some respects, I am more tolerant of people like Dosssa who leave no doubt about their views on Israel than those who refuse to take sides, even though I think you are deluded to take the anti-Zionist side, especially if you are not an Arab or Muslim with a personal existential reality to defend. The LRC might recognize that Arab-Muslim existential reality too, but if they care about Jewish existence as well, they have to do more than pretend to be a forum for all positions (something they can never be, so they end up disguising their inevitable bias). They have to make the effort to engage in a serious discussion of how we can transcend the present conflict in a way that recognizes many, if not all, existential realities, which includes recognizing the right of a Jewish state to exist in a much larger Muslim and Arab sea. Valuing Dossa's contribution shows they haven't begun to tackle that intellectual task.

None of this is to disagree that the media won't or hasn't criticized Dossa, nor is it to suggest that the present system is absolutely unfree. Of course it is not absolutely unfree. THere is a certain degree of freedom in the present system, as in any system. It is just not as free as it could be and I resent that because in my life I have run up against some of its limits and not had a happy outcome as a result, which is partly my fault and partly the system's. But personalizing the issue, like Dossa does, calling out people for being CHristains and Jews and Whites, clarifies nothing. And yet personalizing the political is all the rage in the academy and media, whether you agree with Dossa or not. That is the problem and that is why the LRC was brain dead enough to think this was a serious "essay" when it is just ad hominem nonsense. An "attacked" Moslem man was personalizing the issue, and that was enough for them.

I don't expect anyone to take my resentment seriously unless I can point to ways it and others' resentments can be (at least for a time) transcended in a shared cause for the greater good: in other words, a renewed national and international covenant. Similarly, I don't expect anyone to take Dossa seriously if he can't point to a realistic and freer future that includes Jews and other infidels. I believe he is the type of intellectual who has contributed to the resentful delusions of much of the "post-colonial" world presently stuck in a trap of anti-Western resentment that greatly hinders the ability of these societies to go anywhere but down. Is there any passingly believable reason to think that Dossa is presenting a vision of the future that can help the people of Iran? Surely, more likely, he is contributing to a condition in which terrible thing could happen (though thankfully there are other players in the game) to those people in the future. And yet, how many in our establishment will question his right to teach what he teaches when millions of lives are at stake (this is not about a right to free speech but about a right to professorial status)? They may criticize what he says, but aren't there at play here some deeper assumptions about the inviolable victim status that supposed defenders of the "Global South" take on that we need to be violating? That's the question I wanted to raise in this post.

Again, on this point, let me suggest this essay if you want to pursue the question. The author, Thomas Bertonneau, has, as far as I can tell, had a hellish professional life for openly taking on the task of critiquing left-liberal political correctness in the American academy. He moves around but i believe he still holds a marginal academic position. SO, in a sense we can say the American academy has some little room for its critics. But aren't there countless people at the centre of the academy who have nowhere near the intellectual skills, political courage, and dedicated writing history of Bertonneau?

I believe it is by criticizing the established institutions, and by trying to come up with alternatives to them, that we will expand the freedom in the system as a whole, the freedom for people who want to put fundamental human truths at the centre of attention, and not the lies and primitive religion that is the present reigning ideology of postmodern victimary politics.

I am not attacking Dossa because he attacks establishment people or because I pretend not to attack establishment people. I attack him for what he stands for, and most of all I attack the fact that many names of esteemed (if not so incautious) professors could be substituted for his in regard to attitudes towards Israel. He is not exceptional, in that there are countless people who read and defend Chomsky or Said and similar nonsense in the academy and media, but very few who read Bertonneau.

I believe the point of our freedom to engage in intellectual attack is to pursue the truth, not simply the truth as I see it, not simply the various "truths" that everyone has his own idea of and that some say should have a right to equal time and attention. No, I am arguing that the university, while recognizing everyone's limits and half truths, still needs to believe in and pursue the reality of fundamenal truths that pertain to all of us, because ultimately we all come from the same human origin, so that students might be educated to sufficiently intuit when their time and money and futures are being wasted by professors spouting anti-human (history as one conspiracy of power after another) victimary nonsense. But believing in truth is such a hassle. It is much easier to say "he's so wrong but he has a right to say it and we have no responsibility to uphold intellectual standards among the tenured keeping up appearances at our university".

The establishment basically says, let the market decide. If there are students for Dossa (not that they have unlmited choice in any university, especially the small ones) then Dossa can teach. But allowing tenure and not keeping open all the games that go into research funding and publication, means that market freedom and student choices are restrained. Valuing the degrees of established universities doing a lousy job, more than alternative educational possibilities that modern communications allows, means market freedom is restrained. IN critiquing the establishment's idea of a free market I am saying let there be more and real freedom so that we would be educated enough not to give the time of day to this Dossa-type stuff...

So sorry for taking a lot of time to say this, but it remains your choice to read it. However, if you are a student in many universities who wants to get a degree and certain kinds of jobs, you have no choice but to defer to the legions of those who take the likes of Said or Chomsky seriously. If you want the news, you have no choice but to expose yourself to liberal and anti-Israel bias. And all this under the guise of academic freedom, objective and balanced reporting. The establishment: they decide the "extremes" that can't be heard. That's the problem. Dossa, however criticized, is not enough of an extremist to be banned from the LRC. Don't hold your breath to read an essay there from his Jewish equivalent (which might entail denying the right of Jihadists to claim any land, not even Arabia, for their faith - the Middle East was once largely Christian and polytheist, remember). Couldn't the LRC admit the fact and question their portraying themselves as a journal helping to define mainstream opinion? Why do we need a nice liberal mainstream? The mainstream limits freedom for all of us, even in some ways for Dossa, which is perhaps why, after so many years of his being engaged in professorial study, one might question his and his readers' wits.

Anonymous said...

Again, a lot to chew on.

Obviously, I do see this as a Dossa-centered problem. North America has plenty of campus radicals, but few so ignorant as to attend Ahmadinejad’s fraud conferences. Attacking his BS arguments and claimed credentials as an expert is a straight-forward response to his actions.

You’d like him fired. I’m not entirely wedded to the concept of tenure (for interesting discussion on the topic, see here and here). Dossa is pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. I prefer the focus stays on his shabby scholarship rather than making him a martyr in a cause that some may actually see worth defending. The public shaming he received from his colleagues is rare, though, in this case, appropriate.

I’ll agree that Volpey’s language was overly-generous to Dossa’s rantings. I don’t make much of this. It is the same paper that served as a platform for past Dossa criticism. As for the LRC, I, like you, just assumed they were leftist merely by the fact that Dossa would choose it as a platform for counter-attack. I also assume the few who take the time to read the LRC probably know its political position.

You also have a few overarching critiques of what is mainstream, the philosophical disposition of the humanities, and the centralization of higher education. On the second point, I’m not sure what you mean by calling for “the freedom for people who want to put fundamental human truths at the centre of attention.” Other than the fact such a move is opposed to postmodernsim, the concept is left vague. Should we pursue moral truths? Empirical truths? Theoretical truths? These are all part of the human experience.

You’re optimistic about the prospects of online educational institutions. There might be some niche subjects they can cater to. Reputation wise, employers have been burnt by enough fly-by-night diploma mills to know that online educational institutions are suspect. I doubt that will change, though, like you said, the market will decide things, not me.

Having briefly commented on a few of your response threads, I will also acknowledge that all of this flows from your basic distaste for liberalism, as presented here:
"Again, what I am against is the assumption among the overwhelming majority of the establishment (yes, not absolutely everyone) that the rules of politics and academic life must be those of present-day liberalism."
On this point, I sort of agree with you. There are a constellation of important societal institutions (educational, media, religious, bureaucratic, etc) that have left-of-centre tendencies. The market, of course, is a constant restraint on the aspiring social engineer that may inhabit these institutions. But, in general, I can see why the non-liberal intellectual might be pissed off at the situation. I tend to find these institutions less conformist than conservative critics often claim. Insiders bias? Possibly. I will say this though: your disgust with liberal institutions is one thing you share with Dossa (who I suspect would cringe if he were ever called a liberal). Which is likely why I found the targets of both critiques (the media, the educational establishment, the governing elites) to be remarkably similar, even though the intellectual arrows were shot from different directions.

truepeers said...

I’m not sure what you mean by calling for “the freedom for people who want to put fundamental human truths at the centre of attention.” Other than the fact such a move is opposed to postmodernsim, the concept is left vague. Should we pursue moral truths? Empirical truths? Theoretical truths? These are all part of the human experience.

Pursue all truths. My point is that we live in an age of suspicion that deems most truth claims in the realm of human ethics or politics to be more or less disguised grabs for power. This encourages nihilism, as one begins to doubt any ambitions one has to discover ethical truth as just some ego trip. But no one can be a complete nihilist and so the last resort of the ironic and doubting pomo type is to avow (hopefully making a job of it) the truth of the victims, because if truth is really power then the best we can do is to empower the victim by listening to her truth. Thus a guy like Dossa, playing the victim, may give (to the LRC) the appearance of holding a truth important to those no longer intellectually able to go beyond the personal and claims that it is this person or this group's turn to be at the centre of attention. The pomo left-liberal is unable to make any more substantial appeal to shared values or truths other than ritualistic references to rights and freedoms.

Another way of putting this is that postmodern thought is more concerned with the rules or "truths" for distributing the spoils of the hunt than with the truth needed to organize people to hunt more effectively. Productivity requires ascetic discipline, people deferring gratification and engaging in a shared project. And you can only get them to do this by having them sign on to some higher truth by which they recognize that the good of all is served by everyone postponing desires that, if everyone attempted to satisfy immediately, would lead to chaos and self-consuming destruction.

For the postmodern liberal, everyone’s truth is just what they think they are deserved to receive in the distribution of spoils. In contrast, in my way of thinking, truth is something that emerges before the question of distribution can arise.

It’s true, of course, that certain political realities can be created through acts of will, or power, or through blind obedience to traditions, as the left keeps reminding us in their ever more blind obedience to their own rituals and will to power. But there still remains something more primary to both of these kinds of reality, since even the greatest dictator and the most obedient ritualists cannot go on forever without re-thinking through the terms of some higher truth in their history that makes possible the shared claims and allegiances necessary to those who would perform social power and ritual.

We may or may not believe that the agency underwriting our higher truth is divine; but in any case this truth is the creation of our shared agreements about what is sacred, or the signs thereof. Truth is a shared transcendent reality dependent on shared ideas about what is sacred. We can understand this truth in pragmatic terms - simply going along with what everyone thinks is sacred - or we can seek to understand it in some more ultimate anthropology or theology that seeks to explain how such a peculiarly human kind of truth came into being in the first place.

In other words, shared truths are a social necessity. They can become an object of human self understanding, but they cannot be entirely explained in rational terms for they are transcendent goods that arise from worldly experience in ways that are always somewhat mysterious. For example, the truth of Shakespeare's work that has informed countless peoples’ shared faith in humanity cannot be systematically rendered, or neatly explained in terms of his life’s experience (which would be true even if we had endless information on his life) notwithstanding that people have been intensely studying him for centuries.

The quest for truth is the quest for that which guarantees our acts of faith, our covenants that create new ethical realities that organize people in some new way. (Post)modern suspicion says such agreement or shared faith is just a way for the rich and powerful to get more so, sucking in the people with self-serving promises, hegemonic conceits, false consciousness, etc. etc., alienating the workers or the subaltern peoples from their just rewards. The left have forgotten the human need for transcendent truths to which we willingly and reasonably sign on in hopes of transcending or deferring our worldly conflicts, so that we can get things done.

Moral, empirical, theoretical truths? Well, first, I don’t think moral truths cause us so much of an intellectual problem anymore. Most of us have a pretty good grasp on the golden rule, etc. It may take courage or awareness to act on moral truths, but we generally recognize them when they are presented to us. It is ethical truths, those that are less universal and more a question of historical time and place, that cause us trouble. Thus, for example, before recognizing that something like Marxism leads to the moral crime of mass murder, many people can find it appealing precisely because it appeals to certain moral understandings about human equality, etc. But the ethical question - can it actually work in the real world, or is it just an intellectual swindle? - takes a little more effort in pursuit of truth, one that leads us into all sorts of questions of human anthropology and of how things have evolved in history.

So we certainly need to pursue theoretical truths to understand the ethical truths of what can and cannot work in human history. Empirical truths, in the human sciences (let’s leave aside the natural sciences, a different kettle of fish), cannot stand alone but must be grasped within theoretical or ethical paradigms, whether these are explicitly stated or taken for granted. The empirical data we take to be important will depend on the theoretical or ethical paradigm in which we live. New facts may cause us to question our paradigms, but we should not pretend to have an objective social science that is somehow carried on independently of our ethical values, as some sort of precursor to determining what those values should be. The significance of empirical facts cannot be separated from ethical values which evolve as people search for the shared faith that works, that can make their society grow and prosper in this world. History is a kind of laboratory in which human truth is revealed to those who honestly look for it.

As for your comment that Dossa and I are making “remarkably similar” critiques of the liberal establishment, I don’t think so. Sure we may use similar rhetorical figures at times to characterize our opponents. But there is a big difference between desiring a way to back out of market society, a return to some kind of ritual-bound or big man society, and a desire to further the cause of decentralized freedom. A guy like Dossa may seem to play to both sides of the question since he is a hypocrite: he calls on traditional liberal values when he feels his academic position in Canada is under attack, demanding his freedoms and rights; at the same time, he appears to give support, through his conference attendance, to the totalitarian regime in Tehran that treats its intellectual enemies in a rather unsubtle and violent manner. I think he, like many academic leftists, criticizes liberalism from what are largely totalitarian instincts, even as they can play both sides rhetorically. I criticize modernist liberalism, with its cults of the expert and bureaucratic elite management, from a belief that we can do more to overcome our totalitarian impulses. But it can be confusing contrast, I guess, because so much of leftist rhetoric is utopian, Gnostic, etc. It can pretend to be advancing the cause of freedom, but in the real word its ideas give us totalitarian regimes on the Lenin-Khomeini-Chavez models. An antisemite or an anti-American can use a rhetoric of freedom (against the forces of the marketplace); but I hope you can see that what he is generally up to is fighting against those who exemplify or incorporate the possibilities of human freedom.

Finally, I think I should admit that my previous comment is missing something, though I'm not sure exactly what. It's one thing to critique the present mainstream opinion, the present form of liberalism, quite another to suggest, as I did, that we might one day get along without any mainstream. I would like to envision a world in which the politics of both liberalism and conservatism are so dynamic, constantly building new coalitions around issues, so that active engagement with civic life increasingly replaces (or perhaps resituates) much of the rule by liberal bureaucratic authorities and experts that I feel characterizes the present day to an increasing degree. People today have all kinds of "rights", and remedy to the courts, but less and less say in ruling themselves through representative government.

Could we live in a world where a range of opinions and intellectual responsibilities replaces the much more common human inclination to divide along lines of those who resent and those who embrace the marketplace? Or replaces the inclination to seek out a group think that provides an ongoing identity through life, the desire to be with all the other right thinking, smart and cool and authoritative people in opposition to those who rock the boat in one way or another? Must a conservative today simply try to build a conservative mainstream, however market-oriented and dynamic that might be, to replace the liberal mainstream? If we are out to rediscover the social conservative orthodoxies that truly set us free, in opposition to the expert-authoritarian and centralizing beliefs of liberalism, are we building a new mainstream? If a return to a more conservative orthodoxy truly has the effect of increasing our ownership stakes in society, then we will become more interested in negotiating our differences in ways that both recognizes a mainstream while continually reworking and differentiating within it.

To put it another way: today, no one can be entirely outside the global marketplace, even the most isolated tribes are now drawn into it to some extent; and yet, many want to politic from a professed outsider position, including many socially advantaged and educated people (some even going to the extreme of “suicide bombing” that their resentment of the system be in no way redeemed in this world by the appeasing system – suicide killers are much less hypocritical than the well-situated Dossas of the world; but in any case many terrorists and their sympathizes are often relatively well off in the global economy). Keeping this insider/outsider paradox in mind, we need to ask, is politics always going to be a dance between those who are well-located and happy in the global system, and those whose experiences makes them resentful supposed “outsiders” who need to be better negotiated into the system, or policed/defeated? Or, can politics in an increasingly decentralized world move beyond broadly-conceived insider/outsider thinking and organizing principles, to a world where we continually trade insider/outsider status to a degree that we no longer see ourselves as largely one or the other, a world where we must continually renegotiate our belonging to many little centres of attention, where all must continually work to build viable local realities, a world where no one or no family stays in any one place for long and no ideology or way of thinking gets to think of itself as the way of thinking to which most right-minded, educated, or cool people subscribe?