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Friday, April 09, 2010

Spare me the academics who only want a 'safe, positive space' by Robert Fisk

I put my medium bomber squadron on alert to defend the English language

I'm all for talking to students. I try to tell the "truth" about the Middle East – call
ing a wall a wall, if you like – and to follow The Independent's line: tell it like it is, however many ill-spelt, ranting emails, blogopops, mugbooks and other ephemera turn up at head office. Friends who are currently abandoning the hate-hell of the internet tell me that the only good button is the one called "delete". But back to universities – and that little matter of free speech.

The University of Ottawa – an institution I had the pleasure of addressing only last year – is currently sinking into a slough of despond over a lady called Ann Coulter, a right-wing ranter of the Fox News/internet-raver/hate variety that now dominates the Republican party in America. After the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001, she said that the West should invade all Muslim countries and force their inhabitants to become Christians. In other words, she's a pretty nasty piece of work. Not long ago, she even suggested that Muslims should not be allowed to fly – because they could always travel by magic carpet or camel. Cute, sensitive, childlike humour. Got it?

Anyway, Coulter was booked to talk at Ottawa but received an email of such pomposity from the university's provost, M. François Houle, that students took their cue to protest at her presence; her "security" men decided she should cancel her appearance. When I left Ottawa this week, she was still pushing up the headlines.

So let's take a look at the preposterous M. Houle. In an email to Coulter – why he couldn't write a proper letter, I have no idea – he quoth: "I hereby encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here. Promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges." Note here the linguistic giveaways. "Hereby" – indeed! Houle, the legalistic town crier. Then "to educate yourself" – the implication, of course, is that Coulter is a drop-out. "Inappropriate." Oh my God, yes, we've got to behave in an "appropriate" way, haven't we, in our nice happy-clappy liberal society? And then the killer: "criminal charges". Yup, M. Houle is a thought-policeman. "'Criminal", mark you. Wow!

Worse was to come. While the abominable Coulter grabbed the headlines by saying nothing – how Canada's political ragbag would love to do that – a second-year sociology and women's studies student, Rita Valerino, was widely – and rightly – quoted for the following jargon-based nonsense. "I was just worried that things were going to be said about certain groups of people that were going to make them feel very unsafe and very uncomfortable and we promise our students here at the University of Ottawa a safe, positive space."

Aaaaagh! Talk about an anthropological pit, this was as twee as you could get. "Certain groups", eh? Muslims, perhaps? So why not say so? "Unsafe"? "Uncomfortable"? You mean that Muslims can't stand up for themselves? And then there is the clincher: "a safe, positive space". Yes, we all want to live in a "positive space", don't we? Time and space. Private space. Political space. I read this twaddle over and over again. And when I hear the word '"space", I put my medium bomber squadron on alert to defend the English language – just as I do when academics "posit" ideas.

Not that I don't get the same treatment from time to time. Not long ago, the University of Concordia in Montreal invited me to talk about journalism and the Middle East. But a week before I was to give my lecture, Benjamin Netanyahu had been prevented from giving a lecture of his own at the same university. Students had gathered outside the lecture hall, a glass door had been smashed and Netanyahu – who was charging, by the way, $100,000 a gig (Mr Bob was charging nothing) – was outrageously gagged.

I have to add that the organisers were vetting which students could attend this iniquitous man's lecture – a good way of insuring soft questions for a hard man – but the university reacted true to form: no more lectures on the Middle East for the foreseeable future. But whoops! They had forgotten that Mr Bob was due to speak a week later.

So on the morning of the day I was to talk, they sent two academic spies to listen to my address to the press club of Canada, both of whom scuttled off to a pay phone afterwards to report back on my "appropriateness" to speak. I, of course, then became the "spy", standing behind their booth, listening. By afternoon – once they realised my talk was going ahead – a Jewish group at the university plastered the sides of the escalator to the lecture theatre with bright red posters claiming that I would upset the harmony of Concordia University – and cause racial unrest – if I was allowed to talk. A Canadian television station even asked me for my reaction. I said nothing, but invited them to film me as I took the escalator and tore all the posters off the wall. Which I did. They showed this scene on television – but not a second of my lecture.

But there you go. Over the past week, the Canadian press, while piously rejecting Coulter's ravings, has been asking whether Muslims are the only protected species on planet Canada. And, more to the point, questioning the provisions of human rights legislation in Canada's provinces which dispense with the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. As one Ontario professor complained, "To human rights types, the political right has no right... What you say might cause offence, and we can't have that."

In the hateful National Post (founder, one Conrad Black, currently in a US penitentiary), Lorne Gunter announced: "The fact of the matter is, they protect only those individuals who are members of groups currently in favour with the political, bureaucratic, cultural, academic and media establishments – such as gays, feminists, Muslims, francophones and immigrants – while relegating to the back of the rights bus men, Christians, Jews, English-speakers and those of European descent."

O lordy, lordy. Weasel words – and universities are full of weasels – have sharp teeth. They bring out the wolves. And wolves have sharp teeth, too. I think I'm safer back in the Middle East.

Published in The Independent 3April 2010

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