Friday, February 29, 2008

Terry Glavin on Felton and the Vancouver Public Library, in the Ottawa Citizen

Terry Glavin • Harmful speech:
...the genie the VPL let out of the bottle is a pathology that makes demands that the "marketplace of ideas" can never meet without completely debasing itself, and that no quasi-judicial human rights tribunal could ever sufficiently remedy.

Greg Felton came to his infamy back in the late 1990s in a way that is still commonly explained as a story of a plucky columnist who was fired from his job at the Vancouver Courier, a respectable community newspaper, because he dared to be critical of Israel.

The story is not true, but senior library staff more or less took the story at face value when Mr. Felton came asking for a venue. It clinched their decision to give him the Freedom To Read Week spot for his new book, The Host and the Parasite: How Israel's Fifth Column Consumed America. The title should have been a giveaway.

The library then advertised Mr. Felton as a journalist with "several awards for investigative reporting and column writing," but that wasn't true, either, so library staff had to fix it. But by then, the Vancouver Public Library was the host, and Greg Felton was the parasite, and there was no turning back.

Mr. Felton's thesis is that long before Sept. 11, 2001, a Zionist "junta" helped concoct a thing called al-Qaeda, and from the fruit of this labour the Zionists carried on with their plot to subvert the American Constitution and subject Muslims to mass murder.

The most cursory review of Mr. Felton's writings over the years reveals even more sordid claims. In his columns for various fringe Arab and Islamist publications, Mr. Felton has written that Zionists worked with Hitler's Nazis in the drudgery of incinerating Jews.
You can call this perfectly harmless all you like.

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

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

In those newspapers, Mr. Felton can now describe his new blockbuster on Zionist intrigue as the toast of Freedom To Read Week in Vancouver, and he can introduce himself as the author that Vancouver's beloved library embraced as an honoured son in his father's house.

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

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

When he welcomed Mr. Felton's delusions into an "open and public exchange of contradictory views," Mr. Whitney made a demand that amounts to this: This man will have his megaphone, and you will dignify him by debating with him or shut up.

This isn't something one can easily ignore. The library is not some seedy bookshop in a dodgy part of town. It is a cherished, taxpayer-funded, public institution that must be trusted to know the difference between real history and black propaganda, and between "contradictory views" and mere succour offered up to the torturers of Iranian intellectuals.
More comment at Terry's blog.As I said in our comments section, here, the defense of intellectual freedom that would require the library to give a free room (with paid staff, security, etc.) to Felton's conspiracy and fear mongering, is a defense that subverts real intellectual freedom. The bad idea that "anything (legal) goes" in the name of "free speech" is popular as a certain kind of cowardly, and falsely apotropaic, ritual, because believing in "anything goes" is easier that doing real thinking about truth and value, and most of all about one's own position and responsibilities in a world in conflict. "Freedom to read" becomes a substitute for dealing with real existential questions, and the propaganda that is part of a world at war, where people are dieing, and many more will die, because of lies. "Anything goes" becomes a kind of last gasp Utopian project for a certain kind of leftist, or even libertarian, who has seen all the other more confident Utopian projects devolve into mindless violence.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in free speech and have very little tolerance for hate speech laws. But for me or anyone to seriously exercise my free speech, I have to be involved in a real public debate about truth; and such a debate cannot be seriously sustained if there are no consequences for abusing the truth. Let people do what they will with their own resources. Public resources, however, are something else.

As I said in the earlier comments,
For someone to pretend to be open to all things and all people is to admit that we should have no real debate; because debate can't be real unless there is something, in the way of public status, to win and something to lose.

A defense of "free speech" that won't argue about who should and should not appear on the public dime is like playing poker without real money and real risk. Bluffing loses all meaning in such a game.
Felton did nothing at his talk other than bluff about historical reality. The library should have called him long before the angry audience had to waste their evening doing so.


Transmontanus said...

Thanks for noticing, Truepeers, and an interesting analysis too (apotropaic - I learned a new word today).

The "left" business, though. . . you're right, but see what Benson has to say:

"The left is teeming with people who are fiercely opposed to epistemic relativism and fluffy ‘all knowledges are equally valid’-ism — people who are well aware that that kind of thing is just as useful to religious bigots and warmongers as it is to leftists."

And you are no doubt aware of Sokal's Hoax, one of the funniest take-downs of pomo fuzzy thinking?

Sokal is a very much a person of the left.



truepeers said...

Well Terry, there is no reason why the left (though maybe without such regard for the "left" label) can't be revived and returned to the domain of real thinking. It is an obvious and pressing necessity of our times. I'd do what I can to support it. I'm a "conservative", in good part because today the left is in many quarters insane. In future, the shoeless could be the other foot.

I have a feeling that you and I both begin from a respect for the need to understand universal human truths; in other words we insist that any intellectualized respect for "diversity" stems from a primary interest in the originary human unity from which any cultural diversity, or true and free debate, evolves, "genetically" one might say.

Yet I think real thinking about anthropological fundamentals, and privileged or particular historical/cultural revelations into our shared humanity, will entail a declining reliance on set historical (left/right) postures, and a greater respect for the open-endedness of things human and historical - in other words a refusal of dogmatic historical projects and all manner of Utopias.

On any given issue, I might well side with "the left"; but as a general outlook, I don't quite see the point of insisting on the identity, beyond its continuing pragmatic uses (and I am not an academic, etc...)

What needs to be protected, it seems to me, is our freedom to keep the conversation open. And that ultimately entails having somewhat more respect for various sacred centres of (classical) liberal Constitutionalism, and of modern global civilization (e.g. the rules for a transparent stock market), centres we must all share and protect if we are to be relatively free, than for our particular angle, whether relatively radical or conservative, on any given issue.

So, in this case, we both are more interested in the basic intellectual integrity of the library, than in positioning ourselves relative to librarians' politics. We wouldn't bother complaining about most of their speakers, however crappy they may be; but when one of them clearly undermines the intellectual integrity of the system as a whole, when crude and Judeophobic conspiracy theories are defended in the name of intellectual freedom, we have to stand up...

We should be more interested in means than in ends, or in classically liberal and intelligently faithful means as ends in themselves.

vancouverite said...

Terry Writes:

"For someone to pretend to be open to all things and all people is to admit that we should have no real debate; because debate can't be real unless there is something, in the way of public status, to win and something to lose.

A defense of "free speech" that won't argue about who should and should not appear on the public dime is like playing poker without real money and real risk. Bluffing loses all meaning in such a game."

This is brilliant writing right here. Something the Left doesn't grasp. This "progressive" attitude I keep running across that opinions are valid and defendable simply because they are someone's opinions is silly. There needs to be at least some burden of proof, or for abstract ideas that are not necessarily provable there needs to be some intellectualization that is grounded in reality.

The Left as a movement today is lacking this intellectual honesty and that is a shame. Just like in the free market competition fosters innovation, in the intellectual arena opposition can serve the same purpose. And it can keep the Right in check. But when the opposition is grounded in fiction, it serve no useful or meaningful purpose at all.

George said...

The Vancouver Public Library and the City Librarian, Paul Whitney, are to be commended to have the courage to host Greg Felton. Mr. Felton is to be commended for having the courage to write his book and defend it in public.

Free speech is a meaningless concept if it is only speech you agree with.

I no more want my state-sponsored library telling me the difference between what it thinks is history and what it thinks is propaganda (and only permitting access to the former) than I want the likes of Glavin making those decisions. Free speech is all about denying the Library and the Terry Glavins of the world that power over us -- and Glavin simply doesn't get it.

truepeers said...

Yeah, I don't get it either.

By your standard, George, how many self-appointed historians should be able to pass through the library before we get a speaker who seriously engages those of us who know the difference between fantasy and historical reality? I mean if we had all the time and money in the world, we could give every fantasy its day in the sun. The library could be the centre of enteratainment. But we don't. Are you willing to pay, say, a few thousand more in taxes each year so the library can find a home for each and every one of us who wants to retail his theory of history? I'm sure if you are willing to pay what would be required, you're a rare breed.

Absent your willingness to pay the big bucks so that every possible speaker can have a library platform, I'd suggest you can't ask for any and every thing under the sun. I'd suggest you have to engage in debating what serious historical study is with the rest of us. And if you can't convince many of your fellow tax payers that your ideas of history are not fantasy, then you have no right to their/our money.

So, George, do you think Felton has courage because you agree that there is a Jewish cabal running America? And so, is it only a matter of time before they bump him off? Or is it just because people call him names? I'm guessing you're like the guys who say 9/11 was an inside job. I ask those guys how come they're still walking around to tell the "real" story about the evil government that kills its own people? They never have a satisfactory answer. They love their fantasies too much.

George said...

truepeers writes "Yeah, I don't get it either." I could not agree more. Q.E.D.

Are my arguments so strong that you have to resort to misrepresentation, logical fallacies, and strawman arguments?

Where (except in your imagination) do you find statements such as "find a home for ... every ... theory of history", "[I] can't ask for any and every thing under the sun", "so that every possible speaker can have a library platform". Having misrepresented my position, you successfully (in your mind at least) demolish my invented position.

Now back to reality. I have no problem with all the historians as well as wing-nuts of the world asking the library for a spot during "Freedom to Read" week. With only a certain number of slots available I expect the library would use a lottery to assign those limited slots to applicants randomly. So you see, contrary to your flawed argument, having an open non-judgemental Freedom to Read week does not mean having to find a home for every wingnut.

Whatever the screening process, all I'm arguing is that (apart from the obvious restrictions against illegal material and some minimal threshold of coherence and research) it not be based on whether or not you (or anyone on the library board) like or agree with the writing. That is the part you don't get.

As for courage, it is the library (its board and staff) who have been the most courageous -- standing up to the many, like you, who just don't get it and have attacked them viciously and unjustifiably, takes more intestinal fortitude than I could muster.

Felton is also courageous since some of his writings (I say some only because I have not read much of what he has written, not because I know of any that are false) are true, well researched, and point out facts that are embarrassing to the Government of Israel. Doing that (as Carter as well as Merscheimer and Walt have shown) is a guaranteed way to be labelled any number of slanderous and unfair names (as ably demonstrated by your post).

And no, I don't agree (and neither does Felton from what I've read so far) that there is a Jewish cabal running America. Another invented strawman argument. It would appear that it is not I who has a love of fanstasies.

truepeers said...

Oh quit playing with words, George. Felton clearly says that there is a "Zionist" cabal running America. That was the whole point of his talk.

As for Felton's writings, I would like an example of just one that is full of truth and is well researched. Keep in mind that if your standard is Carter, Walt, and Mearsheimer, you're going to have to do a little work to convince me and many people that you (or Felton) know anything approaching the truth, factual or moral, on Israel. But show me I'm wrong, why don't you...

If you think the point of "freedom to read" week is to have a lottery to allow a lucky winner a public audience in front of which to mouth off, you should run that by Librarian Whitney and see if he can keep a straight face.

It didn't take real courage to put Felton on stage, because the librarians knew serious people wouldn't take him seriously. He's not really controversial. The debate would not be about what he says, but about more abstract questions of whether even conspiracy theorists should have a "right" to library space. Real courage would have been posting the Danish Mohammed cartoons, or a critic of homosexuality, or of women voting, or something like that. Whitney was challenged to post the Danish cartoons; I don't think he has. He's not really afraid of Jews, but maybe he is of Muslims. Which shows you the reach of the Zionists, eh?