UPDATE: for more reporting on this story, see a dime a dozen; and Downtown Eastside Enquirer
I've just come home from the Greg Felton lecture (see also) at the Vancouver Public Library, and even after a few post-mortem discussions with friends, my head is still spinning from what we saw. The conspiracy theory that Felton spun was outrageous, but so outrageous as to move beyond outrageous and into some bizarre but unconsciously brilliant revelation of the bankruptcy of postmodern victimary culture. The audience, variously mad, offended, and true to truth, was often superb in playing, in a simultaneous mix of Canadian politeness and proper outrage, a variety of public ritual roles, exemplifying various solitudes of the Canadian mosaic (not the official mosaic of the "multicultural" state, but the real one of somewhat eccentric individuals), solitudes that showed their potential to create some greater esthetic whole when together in passionate dispute. For, notwithstanding the intellectual bankruptcy of the event, what we saw was a grand performance, from largely marginal or ordinary people, a performance that could not have been scripted or even imagined in advance.
It was unpredictable, perhaps thanks in good part to our friend, David, whose unbridled spontaneity quickly ruined any pretense that this was an evening that would follow any standard rules of public decorum. And this, as perhaps one can only see in retrospect, was as it was meant to be. As soon as Felton, in his preliminary remarks, mentioned that he would be selling or signing books at the end of the lecture, David, who in his various pre-lecture conversations/demonstrations with the city librarians thought he had heard one of the librarians give an undertaking that Felton would not be allowed to commercialize the evening, started shouting loudly and repeatedly and outrageously "no books (allowed) for sale" and other words to that effect, eventually running around the room to the librarian to complain, which immediately set the tone for the play within the play as David offered more objections throughout the evening and parried angry attacks from Felton supporters around him, all this taking place in the front and centre seats.
Various security personnel looked on, but no one seriously intervened in this event held in the name of freedom of speech.
By the way, unauthorized cameras were banned from the event, so we have no photos for you, though there were about four authorized video recordings of the event, about one camera for every twenty-odd people in the more than half-empty room. Anyone who has access to those videos has a potential gold mine performance, a style of theatre yet without a name. Apparently these videos were taken by groups wishing to make a historical record, or to monitor the event for any hate crimes. Of the various people who will probably stick in my memory, the police officer (I believe) from the hate crimes unit, leaving the event at the end of the night, with a look of great bafflement, exhaling heavily, and looking like he didn't have a clue what to put in his report, beautifully figured the absurdity of the event, an event the library had defended as appropriate for "freedom to read week" in part because there was no criminal action proposed against Felton's book and hence he had not crossed some line. And yet the only thing that could really have justified this event in the name of freedom to read would be if Felton had been under criminal prosecution by Canada's dubious hate speech law.
Apparently the evening was supposed to have begun with some speech by some official from some library association for intellectual freedom. This person wisely phoned in sick, or so I was told. It was left to the City Librarian, Paul Whitney (who would become the target of many angry audience members) to introduce Felton. Whitney took some responsibility on his shoulders, but he really wasn't able to provide a convincing rationale for the choice of speaker. He invoked Freedom to Read week as a time for difficult and complicated subjects; he noted that since Terry Glavin's article in the Vancouver Sun of February 12, exposing the library's choice of speaker, things had been very difficult for the library. Many angry, hurt and offended (Jewish) people had been heard from, something he regretted. (He was later challenged on how he knew they were Jewish; he said many self-identified; he was then challenged if he had kept a count of Jews, non-Jews, and Zionists...) But he felt the library had to stand by its decision to provide a venue to this controversial speaker. Just why this controversial speaker, and not another, was not explained. But what became clear is that Whitney does not believe in admitting to having any kind of hierarchy of standards by which one might make choices about whom to invite to represent Freedom to Read week.
Whitney claimed that in the ethics of today's public librarians, every person has a right of access to the system, within the limits of the law; librarians must make available a wide range of materials including books people might be uncomfortable with. The effects of this "anything goes" attitude applied to public lectures would soon become apparent in the post-intellectual theatre that followed... And then, noting that Felton would have a mere thirty minutes to speak, before answering questions/audience statements, Whitney ushered in Felton who emerged from behind a closed door at the side of the room.
In what follows I cannot recount every twist of Felton's argument, as my speed of note-taking does not allow. But here is the gist, as I have it, paraphrasing Felton, except where quotation marks are used:
Felton, dressed fairly casually, began by expressing how he can only look on the United States today, in comparison with his fond youthful memories of a great Republican country, with despair.
Torture is now official policy in the fallen USA; it is a country at war with its own citizens; it is nine trillion dollars in debt; we are supposed to think of the U.S. as a republic, though it no longer is. We might think the downward spiral began after 9/11, but in fact the story begins considerably earlier than that.
After 9/11 the USA Patriot Act was presented to Congress by the Dept. of Justice, on October 3, 2001 [I wouldn't trust Felton's facts but I'm not going to look them up; readers can do this if they wish], a piece of legislation whose scope and scale defies explanation if we are to believe it was simply a response to an event that occurred only a few weeks earlier. The Patriot Act passed Congress with absurd rapidity and turned America into a proto-fascist empire.
Why would Congress commit suicide, giving the knife to the once proud and free Republic? Why was it incapable of defending the Constitution?
Well, the USA went downhill beginning, at least, with Ronald Reagan. It started mutating towards a police state in the wake of Vietnam which demoralized the nation and delegitimized the established political culture, including both of the leading parties.
Felton then explained how an evil troika of three post-Constitutional ruling camps emerged in the sixties and seventies and eighties: 1) Evangelicals who took offense to Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society programs, to the Supreme Court's decision on abortion, etc., and started to organize politically; 2) Neocons organizing around the Heritage Foundation and taking Reagan as a front man for an evil Straussian philosophy; Leo Strauss believed in the right of government to lie to the people; 3) Jewish Zionists - Podhoretz, Kristol, Krauthammer, etc. - emerged on behalf of Israel to complete the fascist troika. [By the way, i'm not sure the point of distinguishing neocons and Jewish Zionists like the neocon Podhoretz - perhaps to avoid the accusation that "neocon" is a code word for "jew"; in any case, trinities are appealing to the imagination.]
Until 1967, American Jews had been worried about accusations of holding "dual allegiances" and so Zionism and the Holocaust had been downplayed in public. But with the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, Israel somehow [there are "logical" details to Felton's argument that went over my head] gained leverage over the Americans who were traditionally only interested in oil when it came to the Middle East; and powerful Jews in Washington now looked at Israel with pride and discovered that they could now love both their countries openly.
By 1976, American wanted a new start with Carter, an evangelical Christian who allowed evangelicals a new political centrality. While Carter initially spoke in favour of a Palestinian homeland, he was quickly attacked by the Israel Lobby and did an about face. Carter did not end up representing the USA, but rather Israel [while Felton did not say this, perhaps this was a subtle way of explaining the resentment Carter now holds towards Israel...?]
The Israel Lobby began in 1948 when Truman was pressured to recognize the new state of Israel. And the Lobby remained part of the Democratic party, until it went Republican with the coming to power of Ronald Reagan in 1980 who was a rather mindless front man for the neocons and Zionists.
Israel bombed the Osirik nuclear reactor in Iraq, using American weapons, contrary to U.S. law, but the US did nothing about it.
Reagan spoke of Palestinian peace in 1982 but was shocked in his nice-guy naivete by what happened with the bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, something Felton, in his manner, full of innuendo, did not seriously try to explain, Israeli barbarism or venality being apparently self-explanatory. When Reagan complained of the brutality, Israeli Prime Mister Begin just threw the Holocaust in his face. Israel now had carte blanche.
Throughout the 1980s there was a diminution in the importance of oil in US policies. This had something to do with a decline of self-interest and a growing obeisance to Israeli interests.
At this point in the talk, about twenty minutes in, Felton's voice began to crack. The strain of speaking to what was in large part a hostile audience, making various interjections and disruptions, was now apparent.
Felton soldiered on, recounting how George Bush fabricated a case against Saddam Hussein, as the entire US government flip-flopped on the question of whether Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Apparently there had been a time, pre-9/11 when everyone was sure they did not.
Iraq is rich in oil and water and it is land within the "maximal Zionist claim". No one in America will stand up to the "sadism" of the Israeli state. Israel wants complete military superiority, a desire which was the provocation for bombing Iraq which never posed a serious threat to anyone militarily [laughter in the audience grew yet further]. There was no justification for the war, Hussein had been an American ally.
The US government, especially since Clinton, was populated by people who had a primary allegiance to Israel. They were dual citizens, raising questions of their complicity with Israel. But that didn't matter now because Congress was no longer in control. The U.S. now serves Israel.
What happened on Sept. 11? Felton responded to his question with another: Who benefited from the fascist coup d'etat of 1980 which culminated with the Patriot Act?
Serious intellectual inquiry had been destroyed in America by the 1980s, a country that now put its faith in Reaganesque religion and jingoism. Reagan spoke to a feel good agenda after US credibility had been destroyed by Vietnam; this consigned the country to those people with anti-American objectives; it's impossible to think this is being done willingly. The US has been under Israeli occupation since 1980; occupied and humiliated by a lobby; there is an interplay between the military-industrial complex and the Israel lobby. Bush stole the last two elections; gansterism is now the ruling form of American politics. What has happened in America cannot be otherwise explained rationally, declared Felton in his conclusion.
At this point, audience members around me were suggesting Felton might be nuts but they were having little arguments over whether he was dangerous. It's hard to know; it's hard to know what was going on in his mind, but my guess is that Felton genuinely sees himself as a champion of Palestinian victims of the Israeli state, and was not deeply aware of what he was saying or doing to justify his role as champion. Despite the nauseating quality of the conspiracy theory being propounded in our public library, at public expense, I could not look at Felton with simple anger, feeling there was some kind of human tragedy here. Yes, this could all be dangerous talk for Jews; yet it was like a parody of a classic libel of the "enemy within", which Felton now dressed up, most carefully, as "anti-Zionism": here is a man who obviously knows from experience that he must distinguish "Zionists" from "Jews" and profess sympathy for ordinary Jews in order to appear "respectable". I felt this name blame game was somehow too bizarre for any but the most naive to get trapped in; and I felt it might be illuminating for some young people to see where a certain conspiratorial thinking - of which there are many more sophisticated variants - can take a man. But what do I know about how others' minds are affected by this kind of talk?
The question period saw a number of people attack City Librarian Whitney, as well as Felton, in very blunt terms. There were also Felton supporters thanking him and also thanking Whitney for his courage in going forth with the event. And then there were various people who thought this was an occasion to profess their respect for neither or both sides in the debate, who stood to defend free speech to the death, or something like that. There were 9/11 was an inside job types, and someone who seemed to be a plant with a question on the USS Liberty, which was, says Felton, a "war crime" and cover-up of Israeli "mass murder", but also an alleged event which we can actually not have an honest debate about until Zionist money and media coercion is circumvented and new arenas for discussion established.
There was one apparently Muslim man who became very angry with those antagonistic to Felton. He loudly proclaimed, when some in the audience shouted "never again" that no one has the copyright on "never again"; later when Whitney was challenged on what kind of critics of Islam the library would allow, this man declared that we could have our Irshad Manji, she is no longer "our [Muslims'] daughter" but yours. Irshad, it seems, has taken the Zionist salary, a point on which Felton concurred.
The most memorable questioner was a man who said he was a history professor for thirty years. He was less interested in talking history with Felton as asking Whitney why the library had a history of inviting Israel bashers and demanding to know how Whitney personally felt about Jews. Whitney would not give a direct answer, merely saying that he did not believe there was any bias among the library staff (a belief in a myth of neutrality which should be shocking in itself, for it is just this myth that allows responsible persons to avoid responsibility, standards, and accountability for their inevitable political choices, and that gives rise to the kind of postmodern victimary free-for-all we witnessed, and an openness to anything legal, an openness that has little to do with advancing the cause of intellectual freedom, for such a cause requires intelligent discrimination). But Whitney also displayed an ignorance of previous events held at the library. He is either new on the job or not usually concerned with such program details. In the heat of the audience attacks on Whitney, a diminutive and hippyesque woman in yellow neon tights jumped up to stand by Whitney in his defense of free speech at the front of the room. Felton also felt some desire to defend against attacks on Whitney. The whole chaotic scene was in some ways beyond my skills of language. You had to be there.
In the question period, Felton also had a chance to mention how the Canadian government under Paul Martin met with and subjected itself to the Israel lobby, thanks to the work of the Jewish Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler. Again it was all innuendo, without much detail or logic to make the conspiracy compelling. But the real villain on the Canadian scene is the present Prime Minister Stephen Harper whom Felton called a "venal traitor" who won't do anything about the Canadian peacekeeper in Lebanon whom Felton alleges was "murdered" by the Israelis.
Felton also retailed a bizarre conspiracy theory regarding the Holocaust, explaining how Zionist Jews were complicit with the Nazis in the murder of other Jews. My head was spinning too much at this point to follow the nasty "logic" closely. Apparently he gets this stuff from a book by one Edwin Black.
As I say, one thing that became clear to me by the end of the evening was that if one is to uphold the cause of "Freedom to Read" one must have some sense of standards. If the librarians take an "anything goes" attitude in a postmodern fear of making judgments, or defending hierarchies of value, the only thing that will ensue is a collapse of any serious thinking and consequently a lack of any intellectual freedom.
And yet, though it is too soon for clarity, I found the evening, in its absurdity, potentially revealing. It showed the failure of the postmodern scene to renew itself by developing new insights into the human. It also showed how an audience that was at most a third Felton supporters could attack the evident absurdities of the event and/or defend free speech in various theatrical performances that point the way to a future in which ordinary Canadians will increasingly grasp the importance of their own personal centrality in representing the covenant we must all share if we are to guarantee each other's freedom and security. This need for the personal performance and responsibility only grows at a time when our erstwhile civic, professional, and academic leaders are no longer able to maintain the integrity of the culture and its former (elite) centres of attention, having given up authority and responsibility to various claims of alleged victims of each and every centre of institutional authority and power in Western countries.