SARAH BRAASCH AND THE BURQA BAN

 

Sarah Braasch, bless her cotton socks, is the self-styled social justice warrior who recently got herself driven out of a doctoral program at Yale by her pitchfork-wielding fellow students, and brutally pummeled in social media, for having called the cops on a black student for being where she had every right to be.

The world is not always kind to those who can’t quite live up to their own ideals.

But that’s an old saw, and I turned in my own pitchfork years ago.

Instead what I want to blog about here are two opinion pieces that Braasch contributed some time earlier, one to the Humanist and another to Daylight Atheism, on the Patheos site, in which she advocated a worldwide ban on the burqa. The Humanist has recently deleted her post for its racist content – of which there was none, but that hardly matters once the mob is intent on a lynching – whereas Patheos, to its credit, stuck to its mandate to post arguable arguments. Here, at the risk of incurring a charge equivalent to distributing child pornography, are the URLs for both:

https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Lift+the+veil%2C+see+the+light.-a0236631549 and

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2010/05/yes-thats-me-in-the-burqa/

Braasch’s case for the burqa ban was not the first time she revealed herself as perhaps not the sharpest pencil in the box. But though the argument is flawed, it’s by no means stupid. Nor is it in any way racist. The pitchforkers who think it is just don’t know how to parse an argument.

Which, to be fair, requires training they simply don’t have. This is why only at one’s peril does a philosopher – in her case an aspiring one – advance an argument in the public forum. For the hoi polloi the unit of meaning is the sound-bite, not the sentence, so a ‘not’ can go entirely unnoticed. One dare not use irony, or speak in voce. So in failing to anticipate the literacy level of her readership, Braasch has no one to blame but herself.

That was irony, by the way. There is no way to outsmart the stupidity of stupid people.

Fortunately, unlike Braasch, I can get away with in voce, irony, and embedded negations. This is because I’m tenured, and I’m in the autumn of my career. I figure if you’re too stupid to follow any of the arguments I’ve made on these blog entries, well, in the words of Rhett Butler, “Quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

This is not to say tenured professors can’t get into trouble. A certain Tony Hall was recently railroaded out of the University of Lethbridge for suggesting that the job of the historian is to revisit what happened, which, at the urging of a certain Goldie Morgentaler in the English Department, and B’nai Brith Canada, was interpreted – go figure! – as Holocaust denial.

So how does an historian or philosopher go about doing his job? I guess by speaking only to other historians or philosophers. But that leaves the widow to wonder why she’s paying the mite she can ill-afford to this navel-gazing echo-chamber. So we really are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Braasch did and got damned for it. If she’d kept her pen in its quiver she’d have been fine. So note to all would-be bloggers. Be careful what you write because somebody might actually read it!

Okay, enough throat clearing. Let’s look at her argument.

To her credit Braasch does not hang her case on the burqa being a symbol of Islamic misogyny, though she clearly thinks it is. She may think she’s qualified to pronounce on what’s being symbolized by the practices of others, but she knows perfectly well that for the law to so presume, well, this way there be dragons!

Nor does she argue that the wearing of the burqa is intended to thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. After all, such asymmetry of knowledge would empower women, not disempower them, and Braasch is all for the empowerment of women.

Rather what she argues is that, even if only as an autonomous effect, the burqa does thwart the capacity of the rest of us to know who we’re interacting with. And, she seems to think, the rest of us have a right to know who we’re interacting with.

We wouldn’t have the right to ban the burqa if doing so would violate a competing right that would trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. Suppose, for example, that the very sight of a woman’s face would drive any and every man to rape. Then a woman’s right not to be raped would clearly trump our right to know who we’re interacting with. But, she argues – quite rightly, I think – not that there couldn’t be such a trump card, but that as a matter of fact there isn’t. For example, the right to practice one’s religion does not entitle one to deprive her child of a life-saving blood transfusion, nor to mutilate the genitalia of one’s pre-pubescent daughters. So, to paraphrase Braasch, Jehovah Witnesses and Somali Moslems, if they want to live in anything even marginally resembling a civil society, are just going to have to suck it up!

So given that she’s premising her argument on “the public’s right to know”, so to speak, Braasch acknowledges that the ban would have to apply to face covering in general, rather than the burqa in particular. Fair enough, say I. But do we always have a right to know who we’re interacting with? In some contexts, like making an over-the-counter withdrawal from a bank, certainly. But when blind-refereeing a paper for publication in a journal? Just as certainly not.

On the one hand, I like this end-run around the First Amendment. Instead of banning the KKK for their views we ban them for their hoods. Smooth! But hold on. In the final scene of the film V for Vendetta, thousands upon thousands of people march on the Houses of Parliament wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Why? Because under the regime being demonstrated against, being identified invites arrest, followed no doubt by something worse. Braasch seems to be insisting that oppressed people either suffer the courage of their convictions or continue to cower in their hovels. So what could she be hoping? That the very government that imposed the ban in the first place would lift it for, but only for, the purposes of its own overthrow? Defenders of the Second Amendment argue that the first thing a would-be tyrant will go after is our guns. They’re wrong. It’ll be our anonymity. And as Thomas Hobbes observed, surveillance is invariably the very first act of war.

So much for the premise that we have a right to know who we’re interacting with. But suppose, however reluctantly, that premise is granted. Now let’s consider the exceptions Braasch would have to countenance, and see what if anything would be left.

Start off with people who need to cover their faces not to hide their identity but to protect themselves or others. Me when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty. Sunglasses. Pollution masks. Welders. Health care workers. Swat teams. All exempt.

People who can invoke the artistic defense, however widely construed. Actors in Greek tragedies. Clowns. Mascots. Santa. Mardi Gras. Kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween. All exempt.

Now let’s move on to costume parties and sex clubs. And what about people with severe facial disfigurements? And I’m pretty sure there’s a thousand more I haven’t thought of.

So who’s left? Moslem women who elect to wear the burqa, and Haerdi women who elect to wear the frumka. Well now, fancy that!

But it gets worse. Covering the face is not the only way one can disguise it. And disguising the face is not the only way one can thwart identification. Cognitive psychologists who work on understanding our facial recognition protocols – protocols naturally selected for given the centrality to our survival of being able to distinguish friend from foe at a distance – have told us that hairline is one of the first things we look at. So no covering the hair. Face painting. Highly questionable. Makeup, but not too much. Body shape. So the muumuu is out. Apparently even your gait can either give you away or disguise you. So, at the risk of flogging a dead horse, if the justification for the ban is the facilitation of identification, the argument proves too much.

Braasch makes the standard undergraduate mistake of hand-waving about how these exceptions are to be accommodated. How exactly would the law be written so I could wear a balaclava when it’s minus forty with a wind chill of minus sixty? Or is her claim that there’s no need to be identified when it’s that cold because no one thinks of misbehaving?

No, Sarah, hand-waving won’t do. If prosecution were left to the discretion of the police and conviction to that of the courts, we’d be back to banning the burqa qua burqa, which is precisely what she claims she doesn’t want to do.

In The Concept of Law H.L.A. Hart argues that hard cases make for bad law. He was wrong. It’s bad law if it can’t handle the hard cases. So if a law can’t be written to do what we want it to do – in this case facilitate identification – without doing what we don’t want it to do – namely fill our emergency rooms every February with victims of frostbite – then we’re simply going to have to live with what I’m sure will be a spate of bank robbers making it from the getaway van to the front door by masquerading as Somali immigrants.

But look. I am not among those accusing Braasch of being a racist or an Islamophobe. Neither then, would I expect her to accuse me, in offering the following counterproposal, of being a sexist pig. Instead of banning the burqa tout court, I propose the compulsory wearing of the burqa for, but only for, women who are, let’s face it, just butt ugly. That way if she’s wearing a burqa I won’t waste my time hitting on her. But when, and only when, it comes to women I would hit on, then I’m with Braasch. Thus understood, and only thus understood, her argument is a good one. It just needs to be, as just noted, a tad more fine-tuned.

 

 

 

HOLOCAUST DENIAL AND ANTI-SEMITISM

Down the hall and around two corners, I have a colleague named Tony Hall. I say ‘colleague’, but only in the sense that we’re both tenured professors at the same university. I teach in the Philosophy Department; he’s a one-man show in a program he calls Globilization Studies.

Tony’s an affable enough fellow, but he’s also an idiot. To his credit, he doesn’t mind me calling him that. He understands that most of his colleagues regard him as an idiot. Why? Because he’s a 9/11 Truther? Well, yes. But it doesn’t stop there. Tony’s convinced there’s an international Zionist conspiracy out there that’s behind most of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the West over the past two decades, attacks for which the Israelis and their American neo-con buddies have cleverly framed their Arab enemies.

Now my own view, for what little it’s worth, is that nineteen brave young men – brave beyond description! – managed to pull off what must surely be the single most cost-effective military operation in human history. No fiction could possibly match it! And so if instead it was Mossad that managed to frame these guileless young Arabs for what was in fact a ‘false flag’ operation, well, that just raises my admiration exponentially. But, alas, cool as that would have been, reality just isn’t that cool. That would have involved just too many co-conspirators to be plausible. It’s not that people talk in their sleep. It’s that people brag. To suppose that of the hundreds of people who would have had to have been involved not one of them, in the throes of passion, whispered to his lover … So no, I think the official story is gobsmackingly cool enough. So that’s my story and, much to Tony’s chagrin, I’m stickin’ to it.

But – notwithstanding that I guess I have – that’s not what I want to blog about here. Rather I want to blog about what happened on October 4th of last year. That’s the day that Mike Mahon, the President of the University of Lethbridge, in blatant violation of the collective agreement between the Faculty Association and the University, suspended Tony without pay and declared him persona non grata on campus.

Needless to say there are several court cases pending, an international censure of the U of L is in the works, and many of Tony’s colleagues, myself included, have, and continue to, come to Tony’s defense. But none of that is what I want to blog about here either. If the case for academic freedom has to be made to the kind of people I assume have been reading this blog, I might just as well hang up my shingle right now. Rather what I want to blog about is what Tony is being accused of.

In conjecturing that the State of Israel is behind the lion’s share of all these terrorist attacks, he’s being accused of promoting anti-Semitism. His accuser, by the way, is one Goldie Morgentaler, a prof in the English Department, daughter of the late Henry Morgentaler, the abortion doctor responsible – and thankfully so – for the 1988 Supreme Court ruling striking down Canada’s abortion legislation, and who was, along with Goldie’s mother, a Holocaust survivor. Bigotry doesn’t arise ex nihilo. So it’s not entirely surprising that Goldie would hold the view that – and I quote – “Any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism!”

According to Goldie, then, my fellow self-loathing Jew, Noam Chomsky, and I are both anti-Semites. Well, once played, nothing can trump the Auschwitz card, so I guess I must be. But Tony isn’t. He’s an anti-Zionist, to be sure. But then so is Chomsky. So am I. But anti-Zionism is little more than a hundred years old. Anti-Semitism has been around since the supersessionism of First Century Christianity. Two very different animals. Two very different pedigrees.

Now my own view – again for what little it’s worth – is that if I thought the Israelis were clever enough to have pulled off all those attacks and blame every one of them on their Arab enemies, that wouldn’t make me anti-Semitic. Hell, that would make me proud to be Jewish. I must be a member of the smartest race the world has ever known! So how are any of Tony’s false flag conjectures anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism is the view that Jews are morally inferior to gentiles. So it must be that his accusers think that Tony thinks that intelligence is a sign of demon possession or something.

Look. Two peoples, Jews and Arabs, each want the same piece of land. And neither, it seems, is all that sanguine about sharing it with the other. What choice is there but war? And what, according to Thomas Hobbes, are the two cardinal virtues of war? Force and fraud, right? Fraud. So if the Israelis were responsible for 9/11 and successfully framed their enemies for it, that would be something to admire. If Tony thinks the Israelis did pull off these attacks and yet he doesn’t admire them for their chutzpah, then he must be a complete idiot.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Tony’s accusers think he’s just, well, stupid. That he has conflated cleverness with evil. Or perhaps they think he hates us Jews not because of our cleverness but for the same reason most of you anti-Semites hate us Jews, namely that we killed your Lord, we celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby … You know, that sort of thing. But though yes, we did kill your Lord, and though yes, we do celebrate Easter by stealing a recently baptized infant and then drinking its blood, Tony doesn’t know anything about any of this.

So the best explanation is that he hates Jews for the same reason I hate Germans, namely that my co-religionists are treating the Palestinians under Occupation pretty much the way the Nazis treated us in the Warsaw Ghetto. If Sabra and Shatila aren’t grounds for Tony’s hatred then neither is Auschwitz grounds for mine.

But wait a minute. Hatred of Jews for Sabra and Shatila isn’t anti-Semitism. It’s anti-Zionism. Chomsky and I don’t exactly hate ourselves for Sabra and Shatila, but these atrocities certainly make us ashamed to be Jewish. Since Tony isn’t Jewish he can’t be ashamed. But he can be, is, and rightly so, outraged. That Goldie is neither ashamed nor outraged makes her the bigot, not him.

But now for the elephant in the room. Tony is on record as advocating that the Holocaust can be, and ought to be, as open to re-examination as any historical episode. Well, how could anyone disagree with that? And yet, apparently, some can and do. Apparently people like Goldie take opening the Holocaust to revisitation to be code for Holocaust denial. Tony should know this, so Tony is a Holocaust denier. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The absurdity of this argument aside, the problem with this closing of the canon is that it leaves no way that the Holocaust can be revisited. And that’s just the equivalent of Scriptural literalism. Scriptural literalism is an unsustainable theology. For example, since Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gesthemene, how does anyone know what was said there? The famous “Take this cup of poison away from me!” was invented. It was, at best, conjectured.

The Holocaust – more enlightened Jews prefer the theodically neutral term ‘Shoah’ – is not an event. It’s the name for a collection of events as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. If I move one grain from here to there, have I denied the Holocaust? How many grains do I have to move, from where and to where, to count as a Holocaust denier? However that question is answered – and I’m prepared to accept any answer to it, provided it’s understood to have been a stipulated one – how does my Holocaust denial constitute anti-Semitism? How, for that matter, does it even constitute anti-Zionism?

Look. Let’s suppose that the whole beach is a lie. This is equivalent to saying that the entire New Testament was made up. Many if not most scholars are now of the view that the Exodus was a myth. How is such Exodus revisionism a threat to contemporary Jews? It isn’t. If I said to a Christian that her entire faith is built on an historical falsehood, how would that make me anti-Christian? It wouldn’t.

How, for that matter, would my Holocaust denial constitute even anti-Zionism? Zionism got off the ground in the 1880’s. The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, a quarter of a century before the Holocaust. So the Jews were going to have a homeland in any case. Once the camps were liberated, did the largely Jewish-controlled media exploit Christian guilt to garner support for a Jewish state? Of course they did. Do they continue to do so today? Of course they do. But calling them out on this is hardly an argument for the illegitimacy of the Jewish state. One could as readily argue that the non-historicity of the Cross means the Vatican should be leveled and turned back into a meadow.

To be fair, Tony is as guilty of this guess-the-enthymeme kind of thinking as his accusers. But that just says they’re both idiots. Tony is an idiot for thinking that a possible narrative is a true narrative, and his accusers are idiots for thinking that asking a question is providing an answer to it. But even if Tony were denying the Holocaust – whatever that might mean – this in itself is neither anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism. It’s true that some Diary-denialists – yes, there is such a thing – doubt the authenticity of the Anne Frank diary because they’re anti-Semites. But the because-relation doesn’t hold the other way around.

Tony Hall is an idiot, but he’s probably not a Holocaust denier, and he’s definitely not a bigot. Goldie Morgentaler, on the other hand, is undeniably the latter. I’m a bigot too. When I hear German spoken my back goes up. But I don’t allow my bigotry to close the canon on history. Nor do I allow it to ratify apartheid and genocide.

There, Goldie, I’ve said it! Now go ahead and petition President Mahon to have me join Tony in being forcibly relieved of my post.