17 February 2008

Lost in Translation

It's not often that I feel adequately qualified to comment on items in the mainstream news media - although I don't usually let my better judgement stop me. But George Jonas' column in the National Post today is both sufficiently intimate to my sphere of life, and sufficiently offensive, to merit a little disquisition. 

Paul Wells has nicely pointed up how Jonas either misplaces or ignores the fact that David Naylor is very much on record opposing a boycott of Israeli universities. But what makes Jonas' piece so detestable is its more general factual laziness.

At a talk a couple of weeks ago on writing, Andrew Coyne spoke of the necessity of striving for "true sentences" transcending the muddled cliches, half-truths and conventions that are so tempting in their ease and so common in their use. But Jonas' piece isn't just muddled: it's ignorance piled on falsehood piled on prejudice like Pelion piled on Osa. Wells calls it "the weightlessness of conjecture" - I call it neglect so complete as to be malicious in effect if not in intent, disheartening from a journalist of Jonas' experience.

I understand that being provocative is a necessary evil in the newspaper business. I suspect the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week would agree, at the very least, that being provocative is a necessary evil in the activism business as well. Because that's what "Israeli Apartheid Week," is about: provocation (and provocation on an international scale). 

At the level of propaganda, it's a calculated decision to tie the Palestinian cause to a notorious and universally condemned human indignity. All publicity, as they say, is good publicity, even if it sidesteps the historical record. As a historian, it's impossible not to say that apartheid as it was practiced in South Africa and the situation of the Palestinian people are different, in general and particulars. The term "Israeli Apartheid Week" is distracting, disingenuous, and incorrect on these grounds.  To say or think otherwise ignores the facts, just as denying the injustice in each case also ignores the facts. But that's neither here nor there to the odiousness of Jonas' piece.

If Jonas had taken a look at the University of Toronto's policy on recognized campus groups, he would perhaps have noted not only the key phrase, that "the essential 'value' of the University must remain that of preservation of freedom of enquiry and association," but also that the University's rule on recognizing campus group are almost painfully disinterested in political, cultural or moral orientations:  "Eligibility for recognition," the lingo goes, "should be assessed annually against ... 'technical' constitutional areas rather than ideological ones." This statement in itself is, of course, an inherently political position, in line with the University's general liberal pluralist conservatism. But it doesn't support Jonas' contention that U of T determines free speech by fiat. It would have been as easy for Jonas to track down this information as it would have been to access President Naylor's speech on academic boycotts. But...it didn't happen.

Fine. Sloppy. Except what comes next is worse. Instead of a meditation on the challenge of balancing academic "objectivity" with the subjective realities of human conduct and injustice (a challenge keeping the best minds busy, don't you fear), Jonas decides to accuse the University of an expedient racism motivated by cowardice: after all, says Jonas, "we know who are likely to riot, and it isn't the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies."

I wonder if it ever occurred to Jonas to call up the U of T organizers of "Israeli Apartheid Week" (there seem to be a number of people and groups involved, which seem to cross racial, gender, religious and class lines) and inquire whether any of their members were inclined to physical violence at St. George and Harbord streets? Or to mosey on down to Sidney Smith Hall and chat with some of the very earnest-looking people staffing the couple of tables there? Jonas could ask them if they wanted to start smashing windows - but perhaps he was writing figuratively. 

Except of course, "we" know exactly who Jonas expects to riot, especially when he accuses the U of T of "know[ing] which side [their] fatwa is buttered on…." Perhaps it's those "Muslim law students" and their ilk involved in a complaint against Maclean's magazine, whom Jonas seems to think go around calling their opponents "kafirs." "We" know these things because "we" can know what "they" are thinking, and what "their" collaborators -- the University and Dr. Naylor -- are thinking, without having to do anything so ambivalent as empirical research. Instead, "we" can "translate" their message as "we" see fit. Don't worry: as Marx suggests in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, "they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented."

I have many problems with the University of Toronto and its constituent parts, but in my anecdotal experience the institution has always been scrupulous in its respect for the letter of its policies on student conduct and Canadian laws on free speech, and its concern for student safety -- if anything, too scrupulous regarding the latter. George Jonas hasn't done his homework. But Orientalists never do. 

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