Monday, February 25, 2008

The Greg Felton-Vancouver Public Library scandal is tonight

Recently at his blog, Terry Glavin writes, in regard to his comments on Greg Felton in the Vancouver Sun:
I didn't write about the contents of Felton's book, and I never claimed to. It's the product of a crank publishing house that's situated somewhere in the bleak Arizona desert and is almost wholly concerned with spacemen and thought control. I've read excerpts of Felton's book. I'm fully conversant with its thesis. I've read Felton's slanders against the Jews on white-supremacist websites, and I'm quite familiar with the Medieval legends that Felton persists in reporting as fact. This is "intellectual"? These are his "views"?

I've spent far too much time reading through Felton's voluminous ouevre to insult anyone's intelligence by stooping to mount a condemnation, spirited or otherwise, of anything he writes. Facts alone condemn Felton. They need no help from me.
While I share Terry's sentiment that time spent on reading Felton is time wasted, and that one should not encourage others' attention to focus his way, we cannot entirely answer the real question that the library's invitation of an "anti-Zionist" to highlight “Freedom to Read Week” poses unless we attempt to explain how professional librarians could be enticed into thinking that Felton's claims of a Jewish (or "Zionist") conspiracy to run America and its foreign policy, to create al Qaeda (and 9/11) as America's whipping boy, had any kind of merit.

There are all kinds of writers whose books no one is stopping anyone from buying, who will never get invited to speak at the Vancouver Public Library because these writers would, variously, just be seen as too crazy, boring, obscure, silly, unduly provocative or offensive, and would not have the cache of a “suppressed” voice that Felton seems to have convinced some he has. Vancouver is a city where a rather thoughtless and left-wing, but nonetheless fairly fashionable and mainstream opinion, heard in media, classrooms, union halls, and white collar bureaucracies, expresses resentment towards the Asper family's (“Jewish”, "Zionist") ownership of the main city newspapers and other local media outlets. The fact that Felton was fired from a newspaper job in the early 1990s for retailing bizarre "anti-Zionist" theories about the "real" ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, and that he has been going on about the "Jewish lobby" ever since, gives him, it seems, the aura of someone who stands up to the “mainstream” opinion and media, in regards to Israel.

While resentment of Israel is actually commonly heard in the city's universities, media, and public forums (including some held in recent years at the Vancouver Public Library - where 9/11 conspiracy theory DVDs were offered for sale at at least three events I attended) there nonetheless remain a lot of people who have a (religious) need for the left's tired old rituals of opposition to the status quo; and such people may not fully appreciate how these rituals have themselves become part and parcel of mainstream media and commerce. And so Felton, merely a somewhat extreme proponent of a kind of anti-Israel mindset, and of conspiratorial interpretations of history that are common in our universities and media, appeals to the librarians, I would guess, not because he is seriously controversial or radically challenging in his thinking, but because he expresses popular resentments to an extreme degree that is yet not politically acceptable to do in public forums, and so cannot be done except under the guise of "freedom to read" week.

But it can't be said of Felton that he is without intelligence. He is fully capable of presenting the form of a serious intellectual argument, with the rhetorical and linguistic polish of someone who has had some advantages of education and time to hone his formal intellectual skills.

I accent the formal aspect of his intelligence because I think that what he writes – judging from a tour of his website that I endured Sunday – is largely divorced from empirical reality. And herein lies, I can only imagine, his appeal to certain librarians sufficiently resentful of Israel and hence delusional (since all resentment is inherently delusional, given the formal nature of resentment; try thinking honestly and seriously when you are feeling resentful, it can't be done; no matter what possibly genuine injustice the resentment originally grows from, the experience of resentment still deludes to some extent). If one is sufficiently resentful of Israel then perhaps one can be enticed by the formal intelligence of Felton's writing into thinking here is a guy sufficiently polished to allow ourselves to sell him as a “controversial” speaker with admittedly extreme views we can distance ourselves from (while nonetheless entertaining those of us who resent Israel but couldn't ourselves find the intelligence or nerve to say much about it in public).

There is a form of thinking very common in the West and in our universities (not least Israeli universities), one that appeals to, or encourages people to become, out of touch with reality: it is a great desire to draw false moral equivalences, such as Felton regularly does, when he outrageously compares the state of Israel to Nazi Germany. The appeal is that one can find a formal idea and apply it widely, allowing one to apply certain “insights” widely. If one allows form to trump content and empirical verification, one can gain the appearance of being critically engaged in all manner of human situations, even when one has little appreciation of how history actually works (conspiracies of a few against many are never the driving force of history).

One takes a specifically revealing historical event, or a powerful concept detached from the event in which it first emerged – an event like the persecution and murder of the undoubtedly innocent European Jews by the undoubtedly evil and delusional scapegoating of the Nazis – and makes of it a formal idea that one then attempts to apply to other historical conflicts, inequalities and asymmetries.

If the Nazis taught us what evil a modern Western state, with the full apparatus and complicity of all manner of professional expertise (yes, even librarians), technology, and military sophistication at its command can do towards a group it defines as racially Other and disenfranchised, then the thinker more interested in formal ideas and political scandal mongering than in empirical distinctions is prone to make of another "similar" situation a scandal comparable to that of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews.

The mere fact that if the Israelis were really the new Nazis we would already be long past the time when there would still be Palestinians out and about to build walls and checkpoints around, is only the most obvious of countless empirical objections one could make to the insane claim about Israel that suffuses Felton's work: that since the Palestinians are, to the Jews, a disenfranchised Other whose members sometimes die violent deaths, therefore their situation is like that of the Jews under the Nazis. The fact that Israel acts with moderation (given its potential force) towards a long threatening Arab and Islamic culture that, for its own core religious reasons, leads many of its members to think that they cannot accept Israel's mere existence under any terms, is simply ignored by a kind of intelligence that is obsessed with certain formal ideas about the importance of the Nazi-Jew victim figure.

To many people on the left, practitioners of White Guilt, the great revelation of the Holocaust must be universalized and applied to any dominant Western power in its relations to less successful non-white cultures. This is no less true even when, as in the case of the Arab and Islamic culture, the less successful culture nonetheless controls a huge portion of the world's real estate and population from which, without fanfare or unending cries from the international left, it has for decades now banished far more Jews and Christians than the number of Arab refugees who (in many cases, willingly) fled from Israel in the conflict of 1948, and even while Israel is but a tiny sliver of land and all that the Jews claim for themselves in a world that in many ways remains fundamentally hostile to them.

Much of the world is hostile to the Jews for reasons not ultimately to do with the Palestinian conflict. After all, there are many conflicts over land between competing peoples, in various parts of the world, and some of these are far more bloody. And yet no one makes an obsessive scandal of them, the way the Feltons of the world do with Israel. What attracts scandal in the case of Israel is that it is a modern Western nation struggling with a less successful though no less determined culture.

To put this in broader terms, what ultimately attracts scandal in the case of Israel is what has always been, for Judeophobes, the essential problem with the Jews: they were the first people in the world to develop a high culture. A high culture is the creation of a particular people and culture that nonetheless makes genuine and ethically (and hence economically, militarily, etc.) productive revelations about what is universal to our shared humanity. In discovering or inventing monotheism, the Jews did not develop a culture in which one invoked or named one's own singular God, as if seeking his imminent favor, or comparing him to other people's great gods; rather, the Jews developed a culture whose goal was in the way of defining the nature of the one God as the Being who is also the God of all humanity. In other words, the Jews developed a religion that is also a form of universal anthropology. The Jews told us who or what we all are, to some degree. And that's always a problem.

Yet someone had to go first in developing a high culture; but after this all following religious and national high cultures that further developed our appreciation of universal truths - made possible thanks to their attention to the revelations inherent in their own culture's particular experiences in history - were nonetheless somewhat imitative competitors who might resent, until they learned better, Jewish priority and, at times, success.

When one resents Jewish priority, one is even prone to resent Jewish priority as the exemplary and indubitable victims that gave rise to the revelation and culture that defines the postmodern age. To the resentful formalist, like Felton, the Jews' victimary status (a status that becomes desirable, because unimpeachable, when all claims to authority become tainted with the brush of Nazi tyranny) must be universalized; everyone "under-privileged" deserves a piece of it, even if that means making the privileged Jews (or "Zionists") into the new Nazis, with no empirical foundation to truly justify the formal claim. Or, like the vogue among certain university students today, one can proclaim Israel the new apartheid state.

In any case, here is the kind of writing that apparently appeals to our librarians' consciousness or desire to exemplify, on the taxpayer's dime, the cause of “freedom to read”. Felton writes, on the occasion of Remembrance Day, 2006:
Even though Remembrance Day and its symbols date to the end of the First World War, it is the Second World War that attracts the most attention. We still act as if our modern world could trace its origin to the end of hostilities in 1945, oblivious to the fact that we have become the new fascists. As I said this time last year:
“Do we seriously believe that our soldiers, airmen and sailors fought against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan only to bequeath to us a world terrorized by Israel, the U.S. and Great Britain? What right do we have to indulge the conceit of our own virtue when we have become the enemy and are doing to Arabs and the Middle East what Hitler did to Jewish Europeans and Europe?”
The U.S—the great Allied power in the fight against fascism—openly repudiated them so it could torture Muslims and destabilize the Middle East. It acts with the same contempt for humanity as Hitler did; in fact, parallels with Hitler are numerous. If there were any justice in the world, the entire Bush administration, to say nothing of every Israeli leader that ever lived—would be placed before a N├╝rnberg-style war crimes tribunal to account for their atrocities.

Unfortunately, we do not see the U.S. or Israel as an enemy because we still imbibe the stale narcotic of the “Good” Allies and the “Evil” Axis. Our moral compass has changed polarity but we trudge ever onward, not realizing we have reversed course. The hoax of Remembrance Day is that it fosters false memories and selective amnesia. The allies may have defeated the Nazis, but they did not defeat fascism. It just took on Jewish form in Occupied Palestine.

A case could be made that WWII didn’t really end, in the same sense that WWI didn’t “end” with the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. Its absurdly punitive terms made possible the rise of the Nazis, renewed German militarism, and anti-Jewish persecution. In its early stages, the Nazi regime struggled under an effective worldwide boycott led by the U.S. Jewish War Veterans. It might not have lasted more than a few years, had it not been for Zionist Jews, who constituted at most two percent of Germany’s Jewish population in the 1930s. They collaborated with the Nazis to prop up the economy, facilitate the destruction of European Jewry, and sabotage the boycott.

But enough of Felton's dark mind. The hate and delusion in his writing should be evident to all. No one should have to waste time and energy discussing this stuff.

But thanks to Vancouver Public Library librarians, who have not simply taken on the job of providing books in demand, but who, like their colleagues in other cities, have appointed themselves the guardians of “freedom to read week", we must come to terms with Felton being given a public platform to speak his mind.

What does it mean to appoint oneself a guardian of “freedom to read”? Does not such a pro-active role require some responsibility and accountability? Does providing access to intellectual nonsense in any way help people gain intellectual freedom? Shouldn't a guardian of freedom to read have some intellectual responsibilities to maintain certain standards, to put before the public not simply “controversial” authors, but authors who are actually capable of more than formal intelligence, authors in touch with reality, authors who don't depend on conspiracy theories to explain history?

Whatever you think of Felton - and even, for the sake of argument, let's say he is in touch with reality - shouldn't a librarian have some responsibility to be accountable for his choices of public speakers? Public resources, such as library time and space, with well-paid librarians and security in attendance, are limited. Who is accountable for the use of such limited public resources? Should librarians really try to hide their choices behind a morally relativist rhetoric of insuring access to all kinds of ideas, as Vancouver's head librarian, Paul Whitney, has done?

The library is not providing for an “open and public exchange of contradictory views” as Whitney claims, by providing Felton a platform. How does one exchange views with people who make incredibly false moral equivalences with little respect for basic empirical distinctions between Nazis and Israelis? You can't debate such people, you can only engage them in mud slinging. Some people are simply too attracted to the mere form of victimary thinking to be able to critically examine their dependence on such thinking.

The whole culture of postmodern cultural relativism is a culture of unaccountable elites hiding behind deference to “other points of view”, instead of taking responsible positions of their own when required. The Canadian Jewish Congress has engaged the library, behind the scenes, criticizing Felton's appearance at the library. The CJC has told Jews not to attend the lecture, not wanting to create a scene for possibly violent trouble makers. But by engaging the library behind the scenes, the CJC allows librarians to tell their critics that they are, in the jargon of today, “addressing concerns”, again without having to be publicly responsible for what is going on. This politics of unaccountable elites is not what the citizens of Vancouver who want to engage in the free exchange of ideas deserve.

Forget Felton. I want to hear from librarians. I want someone to take accountability for his or her program choices. If that fails, I want the library board and civic politicians to demand it. So, readers, please write them letters to that effect.

In his writing, Felton often pretends to be only attacking “Zionists” or the “Jewish lobby”; but in implying a great and treasonous conspiracy is at work to subvert the once free nations of the West, his writing stinks of the same rotten thinking that antisemitism has always been about. Felton's target may be tactically the “Zionist”; but in calling the Zionist, in essence, a stereotypical “dirty Jew”, the enemy within, he libels all Jews, even as he professes otherwise in his bizarre sentimentalization of the Holocaust victims, making them into victims of “Zionists”. How is one to take this seriously from an apologist for the Iranian regime, the regime that not only proclaims that it will one day destroy Israel, but supports, among its many evils, Hezbollah, the terrorist group that has just proclaimed open season on Jews everywhere?

I encourage all Vancouverites concerned with this implicit attack on our Jewish co-citizens to come and occupy a chair at the library tonight (central branch, 7.30, in the Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye room), silently and grimly doing a duty, attending but not engaging the unengageable, to make it clear to the librarians that we will not stand for such attacks on our shared civic covenant. Free citizens and free thinkers have a bond to work to guarantee the freedom of every individual, whatever his or her background. If “freedom to read week” means anything, it must mean that we will stand against hatred detached from reality and appealing to delusional resentments. It must mean that we distinguish between real thinking and mythical thinking and that we expect responsible public figures to also know and promote the difference.

Felton's appearance tells us something about the intellectual vacuity of many people in responsible positions in today's universities, libraries, and other cultural institutions. If we don't demand accountability, the culture can only get worse.


Howard Rotberg said...

One of your very best pieces. You put the onus on the librarians, where it belongs. We need serious answers, and keep up our criticism of VPL Head Librarian Whitney. Fortunately, we have the precedent last week of heroic McMaster University administrators telling the wackos that they could not put up signs in that university for "Israel Apartheid Week". It is about standards, and it is about upholding the best traditions of our liberal democratic culture. The librarians and university administrators who permit the Feltons and the Israel Apartheid activists to pollute our educational and cultural environments must not be allowed to hide behind their puerile and irresponsible relativistic ideologies. Bravo for expressing this so clearly!

truepeers said...

Thanks Howard; nothing was a greater testament to your argument about standards than the intellectual travesty of the event itself. I can confidently say no one's freedom was expanded by Felton's speech, not even that of his willing supporters, for they were just encouraged to sinker deeper into a hole of unreality.