TRAVIS PATRON AND BERNIE FARBER

The application of Travis Patron’s newly minted Canadian National Party for tax-deductibility status, and the opposition to that status from Bernie Farber’s Canadian Anti-Hate Network, is the perfect test-case for just how far the rest of us are prepared to go in our tolerance of intolerance. But that said, that’s not what I find most interesting about it. What I find far more interesting is Farber’s argument. It goes like this:

1) Anti-Semites rail explicitly against Jews controlling the levers of power – the media, the entertainment industry, the banks, and so on – and since

2) Patron is calling for “the removal from our country” of these people who are controlling these same levers of power – these “black sheep”, these “globalists”, as he calls them – it follows that

3) by these “black sheep”, these “globalists”, Patron just means the Jews.

And so since, rightly or wrongly,

4) the claim that Jews control these levers of power is already deemed to be hate speech, actionable under our laws,

5) Patron’s claims should be regarded and treated likewise.

If we put Farber’s argument on a truth-table, it will turn out to be a straightforward case of affirming the consequent. (3) does not follow from (1) and (2), and so neither does (5) follow from (4).

But invalid arguments like this are a dime a dozen in public discourse. So what do I find so interesting about this one? That the argument might win the day notwithstanding its invalidity. That is, I could write to Farber as a fellow Jew expressing my concern about his damaging our image as careful thinkers. And what I’d get back, if I got anything at all, is an accusation of anti-Semitism.

The job of the professional philosopher – the reason we take the widow’s mite in the first place – is to be a corrective to the sloppy thinking of those in power, both in government and elsewhere in the academy itself. But if this is what we’re up against, in both public discourse and in the university, one might wonder what the widow’s paying for.

But this is just my existential angst. What’s of interest to those not having a crisis in professional identity is whether logically valid or not, does Farber have a point?

Look, Farber might rightly argue, suppose I’m arranging a blind date for you, you ask me whether she’s attractive, and I answer that she has a wonderful personality. It’s pretty clear that I’ve answered your question. So there are codes in our language. And so “globalists” could be code for Jews, and, according to Farber, in fact it is.

Perhaps. But on the other hand, how do I refer to people who have no national loyalties but who are not Jews? Or if they are their Jewishness is irrelevant. If I say, for example, that by globalists I do not mean Jews, the very fact of my having said I don’t mean Jews indicates that I do. So there’s no way Patron can say what he might want to say without revealing himself as an anti-Semite, even if in fact he’s not. That’s why I’ve often had to say in talks I’ve given that, “I’m accountable for what I’ve said, not for what you’ve heard.” It probably doesn’t help. But at least it makes me feel better.

Do I think Patron is an anti-Semite? I neither know nor care, except to say that if he wants to remove the likes of Leonard Cohen from our country, what we’re going to be left with is Justin Bieber. And is that really what anyone wants?

My own view is that just as there’s no politically neutral definition for who are the terrorists, neither is there one for hate speech. To Farber, denying the Holocaust may be tantamount to advocating someone finish the job. To pro-Lifers, pro-Choicers are advocating the genocide of the unborn. Embedded in any distinction between any two conflicting positions will be some unstated premise which, if made explicit, will be the one that’s in dispute. Sometimes we just need to press a bit harder to locate it. And when we do, then what?!

My civil libertarian intuitions tell me that Patron’s nationalist and homophobic rantings can do no harm. But when I look southward I’m not so sure. What I am sure about, however, is that the case cannot be decided on principles, because there are no principles that could decide it.

For now I say let the man have his say. If in the unlikely event he’s elected let him speak for those who elected him. If in the next election his party forms government, his neighbours still have their guns, don’t they? So God is in Her Heaven, and all’s well with the world. Well, until it’s not.

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