Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

How to Kill Civility, Hooligan Style

November 8, 2004 

Intimidation by mob rule works. 

That’s the conclusion no doubt drawn by pro-Palestinian rioters who disrupted the visit by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Concordia University in September 2002. 

We are now two years later, and the instigators of that violence are no doubt quite pleased with themselves. Their lawless behaviour has paid off – again. 

In early October the Concordia University in Montreal barred a planned visit by another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. This is the same Barak who worked very hard to bring about a peaceful solution to the violence-ridden Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In 2000 then prime minister Barak brokered the most generous offer ever made.  But Yasser Arafat spurned the peace offer that would have given the Palestinians 97 per cent of what they demanded. Instead, he started the deadly intifada of suicide bombers that ripped apart hundreds of men, women and children. 

The peacemaker Barak was no more welcome than Netanyahu at Concordia. So this time before the first stone was thrown and windows busted, the administration capitulated and told the organizers that the planned event where Mr. Barak would speak could not take place at the University campus. 

Not a Question of freedom?

Concordia’s vice-president services explained: “This is a question not of freedom of speech.  It is a question of our ability to ensure security… to the residents and to the institutions…. The police presence that would be required on our campus is something that members of our community, who remember events of several years ago, I think would have difficulty with.” 

A spokesman of the Jewish student group that had invited Mr. Barak accused the administration of allowing a violent few to “hijack” the university.  He urged the administration to “reclaim your campus.” 

A representative of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights had the audacity to equate Mr. Barak (a “war criminal”) with Saddam Hussein; she said that both are human rights violators. 

The National Post published a pro and con article about this event on October 7. 

Ten of Concordia’s officials, including the president and vice-chancellor, Frederick H. Lowy, signed the article in which they said that their move was not “a failure to protect free expression and a capitulation to mob rule.” 

They wrote that they were fulfilling their responsibility to protect the university population against violence, while also protecting the free speech by offering to co-sponsor Mr. Barak’s visit at a different location. They faulted the Jewish student group for refusing that offer. They then turned the tables on these students by questioning their true motivation and suggesting that they merely wanted to “advance their own political agenda without regard for the potential consequences for Concordia University.” 

To prove their good intentions they pointed out that “not only controversial Jewish and Arab speakers but controversial commentators on a variety of topics regularly speak at this university.…We stand on our proven record of open debate and freedom of expression that is second to no other university in this country.”

A Failing Grade

On the other hand, the lone voice in defence of the Jewish students’ freedom of speech at this campus came from Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University. His article placed alongside that of the Concordia representatives argued that to shrug off this surrender to intimidation means that “we fail as academics.”   

He wrote that banning Barak from Concordia “punishes the potential victims and not the potential perpetrators of the crime. It is unfathomable to me that the mere threat of violence can silence speakers – especially one known internationally as a peacemaker – and it is unconscionable for a university to create this kind of a precedent.” 

Professor Troy pointed out that to offer an off-campus site is no solution, but an implicit admission that something is rotten (he actually said “broken”) at Concordia. He reprimanded his colleagues for their silence in the face if this travesty. He challenged them, not just at Concordia, but everywhere in this country to stand up and defend the freedom of speech in, of all things, a place of learning where such freedom is considered sacred.  He reminded them that this kind of appeasement is not peace but amounts to a dereliction of duty on the part of educators and politicians. 

He asked whether the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, and   Prime Minister Paul Martin  “sleep well at night knowing that fundamental Canadian values of decency, civility and dialogue are being threatened under their watch? Do they understand that there is no peace, no order, and no good government when we can’t even sit and reason together on a university campus?” 

Professor Troy views this incident in the larger context of what is happening in the academic world. He laments that the atmosphere in universities instead of being open to a variety of views is now one in which only certain views are considered acceptable. This is especially evident in the animosity toward the U.S and Israel, despite the fact that the latter is the only democracy in the Middle East.

A “Toxic Environment”

He writes that on the campuses throughout North America, there is “ all too often a toxic environment that festers, that politicizes everything, that polarizes everyone, that divides colleagues, silences dissenters and conquers our spirit.” 

Ironically, as Troy points out, it is often in the name of diversity that only one perspective, only one school of thought is tolerated. And woe to the free thinkers, to those who refuse to fall in line with the ideological trend of the moment, held by the “narrow-minded thought police who might be temporarily ascendant.” 

Troy reminds his colleagues of the university’s true mission, and he challenges them to reason together and to stand together against intolerance and intimidation. He concludes: “If we don’t take that stand right now, it will only get worse and worse.” 

Professor Troy is right in alerting his colleagues that they are delinquent in their duty if they do not rise with one voice to protest against what happened at Concordia. While many of them are quite eager to jump on the favoured ideological trend of the moment, they are AWOL when the occasion calls for protesting with one voice against Concordia’s surrender to mob rule. 

Why do they do that? Let me mention two reasons. 

One has to do with the simple issue of professional (job) security. Do you think that professor Troy will ever be considered for a position at Concordia? Exactly. 

The other is what he describes as a toxic environment of intolerance and intimidation, which unfortunately is not a problem only at Concordia. It is a malady that afflicts the academic world of the public universities at large. There postmodernism, the notion that there is no truth, reigns supreme. The practical effect is not that academic practitioners believe in nothing. If that were the case, they would not be able to teach anything. The fact is that a great deal of teaching, especially in the social sciences, is governed by ideology, often embraced with fanatic enthusiasm that brooks no dissension. 

Only a few professors have had the courage of professor Troy to call it as they see it. Another one is Ian Hunter, who spent 26 years as a professor of law (now emeritus) at the University of Western Ontario. He had this to say about the university scene today: 

“Unfortunately. The postmodern university has given up on truth. So it creates degree-granting departments organized around ideology; once founded upon ideology, it is bootless to complain when such non-disciplines have only brainwashing and activism to offer their hapless students…. I reserve my scorn for the university faculties, senates and presidents who not only tolerate but encourage such intellectual corruption at their institutions.” (National Post, July 6,2000) 

A Breach of Trust

The Concordia authorities’ defence that they made a fair offer of helping to co- sponsor the disputed event at a different location cuts no ice. For one thing, if they fear trouble, why transfer that to another location? It is simply a shortsighted case of the NIMBY syndrome. 

Most importantly, their surrender will only encourage the perpetrators. They will logically chalk up the cancellation of the Barak event as one more victory. Any one who thinks that these enemies of free and open debate will now be satisfied is lacking in common sense. They will look on this as more evidence that violence pays. 

But it’s not only the university that is at fault here. According to observers who were present at the 2002 anti-Netanyahu riot, the police stood by in some cases when people were attacked, and they failed to prosecute vigourously the perpetrators of that vicious attack. If the authorities, who have available the combined resources of university and law enforcement, are unwilling to enforce even one of the most basic rights of free citizens, what can we expect in the future? 

The bitter truth is that unrestrained and unpunished violence begets more violence. In fact the enemies of freedom have just been reassured that sometimes only the threat of violence is enough. 

Professor Troy should be honoured for speaking the truth about the ugly reality on the campuses throughout North America. 

Finally, there is bitter irony in the name of Concordia University. For it is taken from the motto of the city of Montreal, “Concordia Salus,” which means “well-being through harmony.”   

The reality is that the actions of this university’s governors amount to a breach of trust that promotes neither well-being nor harmony. And for that we are all the losers, especially those who seek to be educated at this institution.

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