Harmful Speech

Posted: 3/1/2008 12:20:00 AM
Author: Terry Glavin
Source: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/opinion/story.html?id=ca552513-6d27-4f26-b995-d5e1e76349d3&k=49336

Note from Librarians for Fairness: Terry Glavin mentions us in this excellent article.

Harmful Speech
by Terry Glavin, Ottawa Citizen Special

In the peculiar national debate that has lately erupted over whether the market or the state should define the more important frontiers of free speech in Canada, the Vancouver Public Library's contribution has been exceedingly strange.

While everyone else has been fighting about whether human rights tribunals can or should police the dangerously offensive things people sometimes say, the venerable library has confounded the arguments you hear from the interventionists, and from their libertarian adversaries.

Earlier this week, the library offered a prestigious podium to a Judeophobic conspiracy monger and apologist for the book-banning theocracy in Tehran. His name is Greg Felton, and the library chose him as its featured author for national Freedom To Read Week.

Across town, there was grumbling in the mayor's office. Some of the library's unionized workers were displeased. Elsewhere, the Felton decision drew the scorn of Ophelia Benson, co-author of Why Truth Matters, and attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Librarians for Fairness, a group concerned about anti-Israel bias in library collections.

Just one bit of fallout is that the Vancouver Public Library's management has received several requests for counter-measures, such as one proposal for a display of the Mohammed cartoons that touched off riots and at least 100 deaths after a Danish newspaper published them a couple of years ago.

And fair enough.

But 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.

More than once, Mr. Felton has reported that a Medieval pogrom incitement known as the Khazar legend is actually a fact. Noticeably in vogue in Europe during the 1930s, and again a generation later among American white supremacists, the legend holds that Europe's Jews aren't really Jews at all, and we've all been lied to since the 11th century.

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.

Terry Glavin's latest book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories From the Age of Extinctions.