Sunday, September 11, 2005

Unspeakable Truths: CanWest Global Moves to Define "Acceptable Civil Discourse"

In Defence of Michel Chossudovsky
Michael Keefer

September 10, 2005

A Cup of Cool Reason for the Ottawa Citizen’s Fevered Brow:
In Defence of Michel Chossudovsky

Michael Keefer
September 4, 2005

During the past two weeks Professor Michel Chossudovsky, an economist, political analyst and human rights advocate of international reputation who teaches at the University of Ottawa and directs his own Centre for Research on Globalization and its widely-admired website, has become the object of a strange campaign of defamation.

Chossudovsky’s website makes available writings on worldwide political issues by a wide range of academics and journalists. It also offers open forums in which members of the public can discuss and debate the issues raised by the scores of articles published each week.

But that, it seems, can be a risky business.

Discovering recently that anti-semites had managed to insert their noxious drivel into a discussion thread hosted by Chossudovsky’s website, B’nai Brith Canada did not simply alert him to the fact, so that he could take the obvious step of removing the hateful messages. Rather, with the eager assistance of the Ottawa Citizen, this once universally-respected organization made the event a pretext for a campaign of character assassination.

On August 20, the Citizen published an article (Pauline Tam, “U of O Professor accused of hosting anti-Semitic website”) the tone of which can best be described as scurrilous. Conflating the toxic invasion of his website with Chossudovsky’s own editorial work and with his own writings, the article insinuated that anti-semitism and denial of the Shoah feature prominently in both of them. A follow-up article (Alex Hutchinson, “Controversial site ‘not an issue’ for university,” August 21, 2005) wondered at the University of Ottawa’s failure to take disciplinary action.

There are some obvious ironies here. Michel Chossudovsky is widely regarded as a leading interpreter and critic both of globalization and of the structural violence and military aggressions it has entailed. His life’s work as an economist and political analyst has been a finely articulated series of reproaches to injustices of all kinds, including the foulness of racism. And as it happens, members of his immediate family died at Auschwitz.

By a further irony, the best brief introduction to his work is a profile published some years ago by none other than the Ottawa Citizen (Juliet O’Neill, “Battling mainstream economics,” January 5, 1998). This article offered a sympathetic account of Chossudovsky’s “defiance of mainstream economic scholarship in which ‘critical analysis is strongly discouraged’,” and also of his studies of “the purposeful impoverishment of people in dozens of countries” through IMF/World Bank interventions. It mentioned in addition his criticisms of major financial institutions for a “hidden agenda” involving criminal complicity in drug-money laundering as well as in the social and economic collapses prompted by the IMF—criticisms that have since been confirmed by the revelations of former “economic hit-man” John Perkins and of Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

But B’nai Brith and the Citizen now want this distinguished public intellectual to carry the leper’s rattle of the anti-semite. The August 20 article quotes Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, as complaining that the website’s materials are “full of wild conspiracy theories that go so far as to accuse Israel, America and Britain of being behind the recent terrorist bombings in London. They echo the age-old anti-Semitic expressions that abound in the Arab world….” A second-year University of Ottawa student worries “other students will stumble on to the site,” where they presumably risk contamination by Chossudovsky’s ideas. B’nai Brith’s human rights lawyer Anita Bromberg is quoted as piously hoping that pressure can be exerted on his university “to hold him to a certain standard of acceptable civil discourse.”

And finally, a purportedly sympathetic political scientist who specializes on the use of the internet by terrorists declares himself disturbed by “a conspiratorial element” in Chossudovsky’s writings, and finds “not much that resembles” them in recent work on retail or anti-state terrorism.

This dismissive conclusion is not quite the coup de grâce the author of this article evidently meant it to be. Political scientists who have some acquaintanceship with current scholarship on development economics and on state (as opposed to retail) terrorism might be less likely to think Chossudovsky’s work marginal or eccentric.

And while the weather-beaten axiom that power elites would never dream of engaging in conspiratorial behaviour may still hold a certain faded charm for journalistic Howdy Doodies and pundits of all kinds, the clear function of the taboo against “conspiracy theory” in present-day public discourse is to shut down critical inquiry into matters of what Gore Vidal has called “unspeakable truth.”

What, one wonders, did the seven leaked “Downing Street memos” reveal, if not that the American and British governments conspired between 2001 and 2003 to launch what they knew to be a criminal war of aggression against Iraq? And what did Congressman John Conyers’ minority judiciary committee report on electoral irregularities in Ohio reveal, if not that the Bush Republicans conspired in 2004 to steal the presidential election?

Michel Chossudovsky has shown courageous persistence in exposing zones of unspeakable truth to principled analysis. Ironically again, his chief offense against orthodoxy appears to have been his steadfast refusal to racially delimit his opposition to human rights abuses. Articles published on his website have criticized not just the horrors of the Iraq occupation, and Canada’s and the UN’s grotesquely hypocritical participation in the overthrow of democracy in Haiti, but also the state of Israel’s shameless violations of human rights, international law and common decency in its treatment of the Palestinians.

B’nai Brith and CanWestGlobal (which owns and controls the Ottawa Citizen) would like to enforce “a standard of acceptable civil discourse” that effaces any distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-semitism. But as is made clear by an editorial in which the Citizen returns to the attack (“The right to be wrong,” August 26, 2005), they want not merely to silence critics of Israel, but also to regulate and restrain free critical thought in a much wider sense.

Behind a pallid pretense of defending Chossudovsky’s academic freedom, this editorial sets about ensuring that his exercise of it will, as the Citizen charmingly says, “have consequences.” His “exotic opinions” are mocked as arising from a procedure of “throw[ing] facts into a pot and hop[ing] conspiracies boil out.” The editorial describes as particularly absurd one of his recent articles, which drew attention to parallels between an anti-terrorism exercise run in London on the morning of July 7 that scripted bombings in the same three underground stations that were actually attacked, and CIA and military anti-terrorism exercises in the US that shortly preceded or coincided with the 9/11 attacks. We are told that B’nai Brith shares this view, objecting not just to the discussion-thread postings inserted by anti-semites into Chossudovsky’s website, but also “to the tone of the site more generally. One of the scraps Mr. Chossudovsky’s piece on terrorism exercises throws into the cauldron is that Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in London during the July 7 attacks.”

The editorial’s tactic of ridiculing Chossudovsky by attributing to him its own feeble treatment of facts and arguments as disconnected bits and pieces is childishly obvious. But any chain of discourse can be made to seem silly if one snips it into bits and shakes them in a hat. (If I sang it badly enough, I do believe I could make “God Save the Weasel” sound like “Pop Goes the Queen.”)

The Citizen’s editorial urges Chossudovsky’s “colleagues and bosses” to “make a point of explaining why he’s wrong.” Let’s pause for a moment, then, over the article that has aroused such a flurry of contempt (Michel Chossudovsky, “7/7 Mock Terror Drill: What Relationship to the Real Time Terror Attacks?”, August 8, 2005).

Readers of the Citizen who take the trouble to look up this article may be surprised to discover that it is cautious and tentative rather than accusatory in tone. It confines itself to a sober gathering of information from mainstream media sources. And it concludes by recommending against the drawing of “hasty conclusions” and by calling for “an independent public inquiry into the London bomb attacks.”

So why the complaints? Bibi Netanyahu indeed gets a mention: Chossudovsky quotes from that wild and exotic source, the Associated Press, a report from Jerusalem according to which Scotland Yard gave the Israeli Embassy in London advance warning of a bombing attack, thanks to which Netanyahu was able to cancel a meeting scheduled at a venue close to the site of one of the bomb blasts.

Does that sound troubling to you? Do you think Michel Chossudovsky may have been right to suggest that “The issue of foreknowledge raised in the Associated Press report also requires investigation”? Or should we just shoot the messenger and be done with it?

There is, to conclude, one point at which I find myself in agreement with the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial writer: I think a controversy of this sort should indeed “have consequences.”

I believe the Citizen’s editorial team, together with Frank Dimant and Anita Bromberg of B’nai Brith, should bow their heads in shame.

I think they should offer a public apology to Michel Chossudovsky and make a serious effort to avoid disgracing themselves in future by any repetition of this kind of sordid campaign of defamation.

Michael Keefer, who teaches English at the University of Guelph, is a former President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English. His most recent writings include a series of articles on electoral fraud in the 2004 US presidential election published by the Centre for Research on Globalization.

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