Monday, June 16, 2008

Thoughts on Bernie Farber and Scapegoating

NOTE: I began with the intention of writing a short post. I didn't readily find a concise way of saying what I wanted to say about scapegoating, not the easiest of topics. I'm not sure how useful will be the following mini-essay to readers; it's not the kind of thing I would normally write and publish in a day. But since it is a response to a recent article that will hopefully soon be forgotten, I will just throw it out there now for whoever can make use of it.

Blazing Cat Fur is tearing a strip off of Bernie Farber and Haroon Siddiqui, in response to the latter's latest left-Islamist alliance piece in the Toronto (red) Star.

Siddiqui writes:

One staple of anti-Semitism has been that Jews have taken over the world, or are about to. Now Muslims are being accused of the same.

That Muslims pose a dire demographic and ideological threat to the West was the hypothesis of a 4,800-word article, The Future Belongs to Islam, in Maclean's magazine in October 2006. Its reverberations are still being felt.

Last month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission called it "Islamophobic." This month, the British Columbia commission held a week-long hearing. And the federal commission is weighing a report from its investigators.
Other commentators have invoked the free-speech argument, in its various formulations – free speech is so precious that even hate speech should not be censored. Or hate speech may be curbed but only through the Criminal Code. Or hate speech is best dealt with under human rights statutes, which should be tightened to allow only "vexatious" cases, not "frivolous" ones.

But freedom of speech is not absolute. "Except for the U.S., virtually every Western democracy has laws against hate," notes Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "Our anti-hate laws are probably the most underused."

The Supreme Court has upheld those laws. Jewish, gay and other groups have long advocated their use. Few Canadians complained. But now that Muslims are, many are.

"That's really what it's about," Farber told me. "When non-Muslims were using it, nobody really cared.

"People need scapegoats. It used to be Jews. Now it's Muslims, to a great extent. Tomorrow, it may be Bahais or somebody else ...

"People should focus on the law, not on those using it. If the complaint is frivolous, the system will deal with it."

Barbara Hall, chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, has offered a similarly clear-headed view.

Even while refusing to hear the Maclean's case – because her commission, unlike the one in B.C., does not have the jurisdiction to hear cases against the media – she used her "broader mandate to promote and advance respect for human rights" to speak out:

"Islamophobia is a form of racism ... Since September 2001, Islamophobic attitudes are becoming more prevalent and Muslims are increasingly the target of intolerance ...

"The Maclean's article, and others like it, are examples of this. By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to `the West,' this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice toward Muslims and others."
Now, first of all, read Blazing Cat Fur's take on this column, and ask yourself, is Cat Fur "scapegoating" Farber and Siddiqui?

I raise the question in response to the cynical "race baiting" defense of the "human rights" tribunals that F & S mount: that "Jews and Gays" used the HRCs/HRTs and no one complained. But now that Muslims are using this arm of the state it seems that much of Canada is up in arms about thought policing. Thus, concludes Farber, the real target is not "human rights" law, but Muslims; people need scapegoats; and today's scapegoat is the Muslim. Formerly, people had conspiracy theories about Jews wanting to control the world; now it's more of the same thing, except it's Muslims who are playing the black-hatted role (or should I say black-sacked?).

I will try to say a bit about Farber's comments though there are limits to any engagement with people who imply that all racism is of a kind, as if the (quite different) reasons why someone might resent Jews, Muslims, or Bahais boiled down to the same immoral position, the same supreme sin of "racism". If a Jewish leader will not begin to distinguish Judeophobia as something fundamentally different from Islamophobia, he's not really thinking but has given in to the moral relativism of postmodern multiculturalism.

But I raise the question because I often accuse people of scapegoating and I don't want to be seen as the moral equivalent of Bernie Farber. Hell I'll do it again now and assert that Farber and Siddiqui are here defending a victimary politics that, in the guise of standing up for the victim, creates a positive demand and need for more victims and martyrs, a need that can only be met through scapegoating.

Farber, for example, has been such a supporter of the Canadian Human Rights Commission chasing down "neo-Nazis" on the internet that he, among others, has helped create a bureaucratic market demand that has led rogue "human rights investigators", posting on the internet under pseudonynms like "Jadewarr", to post hateful speech on web sites. This has been done to feed an unsated demand for "finding" and prosecuting "hate".

Long story short, but if the close relationship between the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canadian Human Rights Commission is any indicator, it seems that Jews who think of themselves (not without reason) as history's victims may, in post-war Canada, be prone to getting into situations where they end up creating their own victims. Of course Bernie Farber wouldn't see it that way: how can a Marc Lemire, "Jadewarr's" most famous victim, be a "victim"? After all, Lemire is allegedly a "neo-Nazi", and hence automatically a victimizer himself, automatic in the post-Holocaust world view that has given rise to the religion of "human rights".

The most that Farber will indirectly admit in relation to any wrongdoing at the CJC is that we all need scapegoats, and hence there's a need for a legal process to judge which ones are real and which not. But if we begin with the vague moral equivalence that accuses everyone of the universal human sin of scapegoating, can we then develop any kind of legal process that can make disinterested judgment on who is a genuine scapegoat and who is a vile scapegoater? How are we to find judges who are not themselves blinded by the sins of scapegoating?

In matters intellectual, the last refuge of those who would escape a difficult reality that makes hard demands for empirical distinctions, alongside respect for the rule of law, is moral relativism. The ultimate goal of moral relativism is to avoid real judgments (judicial or intellectual) that can help us mediate our differences by forcing us to recognize ethical differences, or more and less successful forms of human society. Relativism is tied to an impossible Utopian desire that would prompt us to just give up fighting with each other. It's the attempt to convince us to walk away from fights under the suasion of someone saying, "yeah, well, you're a victimizer/victim, too", as if we're all equally bad and equally good and we should just be humbled by such a claim and crawl back to the wise mommy state that knows how to treat everyone equally like children expect to be treated by moms.

When Bernie Farber, who has had a good run representing the Canadian Jewish Congress - taking a lead among NGOs in communicating with and influencing the "human rights" agents of the Canadian state, helping ensure that the Marc Lemires of the world get punished for promoting certain resentments - starts to see his own organizations' actions becoming targeted for criticism, what does he do? Does he openly debate those making rational claims that more harm inevitably comes from the restrictive and somewhat arbitrary or politicized means necessary to police "hate" than does any possible good? No, instead of seriously exploring if there are any possible methods of restricting speech that would not inevitably compromise his "noble" Utopian end of ending "hate", it seems to me that the Utopian dream rules and Bernie can only offer false moral equivalences by way of defending it.

I think it outrageous that a leader of a Canadian Jewish organization claims that because there has been widespread criticism of Muslims using "human rights" legislation to prosecute "hate speech", this is a sign many Canadians have fallen for a resentful delusion equivalent to claiming that Jews are trying to rule the world. First of all, it ignores what those Muslims presently advancing "human rights" cases are trying to do. It is to make a claim of Islamophobia even while apparently dismissing as frivolous the likes of Syed Soharwardy who attempts to impose Sharia values through the backdoor of "hate speech" legislation, in response to the re-publication of cartoons that Imam Soharwardy considers blasphemous. Farber's disingenuous argument points to the problem that ultimately neither Farber, nor any possible judge, could be sure where to draw the line in acknowledging what is a legitimate target when it comes to Muslims or Islam, and what not? Is the Soharwardy complaint frivolous or a sign of our Islamophobia?

Second, while I wouldn't try to use the state to shut up the Judeophobic conpsiracy nuts, I'm still offended by Farber's attempt to make Judeophobia and Islamophobia equivalent. Has Farber no respect for what many Muslims actually believe about the purpose and destiny of their religion to convert and/or conquer the kaffir world?

If I said "Christians want to conquer the world for their religion and idea of God" I hope that wouldn't be considered hate speech, since Christianity is on a mission to spread the Gospel. So why would Farber imply it is hate speech, Islamophobia, to allege that Muslims want Islam to rule the world? Maybe it's because there is something about the reality of Islam he doesn't want to address, preferring simply to believe that Canadian Muslims only want to maintain their religion as a private concern with no claim on the state or global politics. That is no doubt true for some Canadian Muslims, but for how many, or how few, no one really knows (something we will never know until we have a more free-wheeling speech environment, one in which both Muslims and non-Muslims can feel much safer in expressing their thoughts and living with the feedback). From lack of knowing, many non-Muslims are understandably scared by the rise of Islamist preaching, and fundamentalist or orthodox interpretations of the Koran and Hadith. In many parts of the world, the preaching of Islam presently goes in hand with a pervasive and prominent Judeophobia, something there are more than a few signs of in Canada.

On the other hand, Farber surely knows enough about Judaism to see that is has not been a proselytizing religion for millennia, and that it presently claims only a tiny parcel of land for a Jewish state. And Farber surely knows something about the difficult history of Jews under Islam, the growth of the latter having been great and now dominant over a very large swathe of geography.

Thus, for Farber to claim that someone making resentful claims about Islamic imperialism is the moral equivalent of those who see a Jewish conspiracy in the "invisible hand" of the free marketplace, all kinds of empirical realities and distinctions have to be ignored. Whatever the relative success of Jews in the global free market, only the deluded think this is a market that anyone controls. However, those who fear Islamic expansion fear a political, not simply religious, movement that is today in large part openly premised on opposition to the global free market. This opposition clearly exists, even if its preferred alternative to free market modernity is some vague ideology about a renewed Caliphate. This vagueness, which suggests an unwillingness to come to terms with modernity, is surely something to be feared. It is lunacy for a Jewish leader to paper over such fundamental distinctions in our "phobias", in deference to a vaguely leftist Utopianism.

How can such lunacy have come about, for surely Farber and his friends at the CJC do not see themselves as lunatic, as a threat to the rather free people they pretend to defend from too much freedom? One way to an answer lies, I would suggest, in understanding Farber's claim that all people need scapegoats, as if we were all equally immersed in the same original human sin.

In a world where religions, tribes, nations, and sundry other identity groups are in conflict, it is tempting to seek peace by saying we're all equally bad/good. And the fact of the matter is that we all do indeed tend to bond ourselves with like people against some other or Other.

However, I would not have taken the blogging name of "truepeers" if I thought it weren't essential to learn how some forms of bonding and conflict are more productive than others. We often oppose a person or group in an attempt to develop a new relationship of reciprocity with our other, a relationship we trust will develop as long as we are both committed and able to speak our minds in search of some common ground. Often it is by recognizing a rival, and fighting with him, that we begin to develop, through the revelations that come with open conflict, an understanding of the shape of the peace pact that can transcend our differences.

But the creative possibilities of conflict may be lost to those who are so apt to call each other out for "scapegoating". Why are we so keen to accuse the other of scapegoating?

We live among the fruits of a Judeo-Christian history that has always had as a central concern a critique of social reliance on irrational forms of sacrificial violence, or idolatry. From the story of Abraham that signified an end to child sacrifice, to that of Jesus which put into question the dictum that it is good for a single man to die for the peace of the entire community, and beyond into secular history with its lessons on such matters as modern genocide, there has been a concern to overcome forms of society seeking order through human sacrifice.

In the classical Christian view, the scapegoaters must be forgiven for "they do not know what they do". In other words, people can be so immersed in the social need to bond together around/against a shared victim that they are not conscious of and critical of their need for a scapegoat. They might even create "kangaroo courts" where the need for a victim outweighs the rule of law and the accused is condemned by unfair and arbitrary measures.

The problem is that in the postmodern age, far too many people are keen to develop our many historical revelations of the human dependence on scapegoating into some kind of universal law of scapegoating whose truth can be detached from a due consideration of what makes each situation somewhat different ethically. There are, for example, theories of language that hold that all successful representation entails a form of othering, or scapegoating, that the successful representation is a form of superstition in the service of the power that constructs itself in the very act of representation. The postmodernist holds that all cultural "constructions" work to marginalize someone. Thus the very nature of our language-bound humanity requires the constant vigilance of those sensitive to our universal tendency to victimize or scapegoat the other. The victimary religion of "human rights" policing is thus born.

Such theories drive people towards forms of nihilism and moral relativism in which it is easy to make mindless statements of moral equivalence, like "all humans (equally) need scapegoats", or "one conspiracy theory is as bad as another."

These theories are popular because of a lack of alternative anthropologies that might explain how the act of representation is not fundamentally an act of violence or power grabbing, but rather an act that works to defer violence.

Long story short, the discipline of Generative Anthropology, to which the present argument is indebted, has developed to rectify the anthropological bad faith of postmodern nihilism and moral relativism, the bad faith that would reduce all culture to someone's scapegoating and "will to power". But GA has as yet not had the impact it will one day have in teaching us again to value the productivity (more or less) of all language in deferring violence.

All representations create the possibility of developing new and ethical forms of reciprocity and social organization modeled on the exchange of the representations in question. But not every representation will work equally well in bringing people into its orbit, not every representation will go far towards maximizing reciprocity. Thus, not every form of culture is in this pragmatic sense equal. In today's world a Michael Jackson likely does more than Mozart to mediate our passions and to bring people into various forms of exchange. I don't know for sure; it is ultimately an empirical question, one that is not served by cynical know-it-alls who would tell us that all music constructs both a privileged audience and those who don't share in the communion of the performance, cynics who assert that any claim for a "higher", "better", more popular, or more successful culture is nothing but a move in a power game.

But Michael, Mozart, and their followers, are not simply two (im)morally equivalent camps making claims on cultural power. This is because all forms of culture, even violent representations, do something in the way of both creating and deferring potentially violent desires. All forms of culture are more or less successful, in different social milieux, at keeping the peace. It is up to those actively pursuing their stakes on the many shared human scenes to judge what works best, on any specific scene, to bring people into greater forms of exchange. Sometimes calling someone a nasty name is not the last word before a fight but the first step to an exchange that avoids a fight.

But stakeholders on the many humans scenes can't work effectively if we live in a world of censors out to prejudge such matters on the basis of their own preconceptions of what can and cannot work, of what is "likely to expose some group to contempt or hate". One cannot know for sure whether someone who makes cartoons of Mohammed is likely to pressure/humour Muslims into a kind of tolerance and openness that is conducive to life in the global village where we need continually find new ways to relate to each other, or whether it will bring on an uncontrolled and unproductive rage. But if we are able to defend the freedom to offend, if we can do it and not get killed, then in using our shared freedom we will learn much more about each other and thus lay the ground for making each other more accountable and productive in language than in arms. If, on the other hand, we give in to fears and start drawing lines around what can and cannot be said or represented, then we close doors to future possibilities without which we may not be able to renew and further bases for human reciprocity. Creative renewal can only come when conflict is admitted and worked through. To try and avoid the risk that goes with attempts at renewal is sooner or later deadly, since the inevitable force of human resentment is presently eroding the existing bases for human reciprocity.

When it comes to using the word "scapegoating," it is not enough to show that every act of representation creates a centre and a periphery, if our goal is to then "deconstruct" each and every centre in the name of revealing the centre's inevitable peripheral victims. Postmodern "deconstruction" in the name of the victim misunderstands the whole business, the goodness, of representation. What needs to be considered is that any given periphery sustains a productive trade in tokens of the sacred centre. When we put a holy book, or a Nike shoe, at the centre of attention, each will do something, in different ways, to allow for a peripheral exchange that mediates our differences and expands freedom, and this exchange is not some conspiracy of the powerful against the oppressed.

While it is true that we are often lacking in human reciprocity and that some people are not sufficiently included in our networks of exchange, this is not the fault of evil forms of representation (evil being essentially a violence against representations or people), but rather of the lack of sufficient means to represent our differences in productive ways. Generally speaking, the more centres of attention, the more forms of exchange, the better we will be. Maximizing freedom of expression is an essential part of this.

I hope that we will become committed to an understanding of human freedom that will encourage us to give up postmodern victim games and return to an ethic that privileges empirical observation and rigorous distinctions about the forms of culture that are more or less capable of deferring violence by engaging people in exchange of our differences. A "human rights" tribunal could be justified if it really had the effect of mediating our resentments in such a way that it brought members of society closer and more willing to engage each other. Alternatively, if centralized show trials and attempts to shut people up have the effect of exacerbating resentments, of doing evil, as they seem to have done of late in Canada, people should take a hard look at getting rid of them.

It is noteworthy that the likes of Bernie Farber and Haroon Siddiqui cannot even begin to address such questions. They remain trapped in the postmodern dead end that sees our many representations of difference as suspect, hoping against reason that the solution to our many problems lies with sufficient worship of the mommy state and its attempt to smother differences in some big group hug open to all. But productive exchange requires acknowledgment and articulation of conflict, not group hugs.


Blazing Cat Fur said...

Farbers stance is so bizarre, Siddiqui I understand - we know he's an Islamist;) Farber on the other hand seems simply craven.

truepeers said...

Well, my guess is that Farber has been defending these HRCs for years, and he is just one of those stubborn and proud guys who can't second-guess something he's made a big commitment to, even when everyone is saying you're wrong.

It could be too that he has such resentment for the Western (Christian) "far right" that he will make strange bed fellows to maintain a sense of acting against something (his core resentment) that has become fundamental to his personal identity.

Thanks for the link.