Monday, October 09, 2006

Free speech and its perils

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist with Novaya Gazeta who had probably done more than any other single person to expose the horror of the war in Chechnya and the involvement of Russian officials in some of its most ghastly aspects, was murdered on Saturday at her Moscow apartment. Her book, A Small Corner of Hell, was one of the definitive portraits of the agony inflicted on the Chechens, and how actors on both sides of the conflict cynically profited from it. When she died, she had been working on an article regarding the use of torture in the regime of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow premier Ramzan A. Kadyrov, which, she told The New York Times in April, would likely include evidence of torture by Kadyrov’s police and paramilitaries, and perhaps even testimony from at least one witness who had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov himself.

Whoever ordered the contract killing, for which at this point no suspects have been apprehended, the intent seems fairly clear: To silence one of Russia’s most powerful voices for human rights, democracy and government accountability. Someone was so threatened by what Politkovskaya would say or write that they decided, in the cold calculations of the brutal, that killing her was an appropriate price to pay to ensure her silence.

It is sadly ironic that this silencing of a dissenting voice should come just days after, for the second time in recent weeks, Columbia University, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the United States and a fixture on the educational landscape here in my own city of New York, appeared to bow to the voices of intolerance in allowing a scheduled speaker to be silenced by those who differed from their views.

This time the speaker, invited by a campus Republican group, was Jim Gilchrist, the head of the Minuteman Project, which assembled hundreds of volunteers last year, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. As Mr. Gilchrist spoke, several dozen protestors stormed the stage, unfurled banners and began shouting him down and, by some accounts, attempted to push him off the stage. You can watch film of the disruption here. As the fracas erupted mere weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited, then disinvited, to the campus in the midst of popular outcry, one can fairly ask whether the level of debate at one of our nation‘s most prestigious (and expensive) universities has sunk to the level of sloganeering and fear of allowing the other side be heard. Though I personally have no respect at all for the virulently anti-immigrant and xenophobic position of Mr. Gilchrist and his group, much as I have no respect for the frothingly anti-Semitic rantings of Mr. Ahmadinejad, either our campuses here in the United States are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not. On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took the right approach, by stating that “I think it’s an outrage that somebody that was invited to speak didn’t get a chance to speak…There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.”

It seems that this current of intolerance is more and more a facet of public discourse in North America. I have experienced it first-hand. At about this time one year ago, I published my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), my chronicle of my experiences in that Caribbean country since 1997. Despite some historical sidetracks, the book is chiefly a chronicle of the years between the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government to Haiti by a U.S.-lead multinational force in 1994 to his overthrow and exile amidst massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion a decade later.

Having been involved with Haiti for many years and having seen what Mr. Aristide, his government and his Fanmi Lavalas political party had brutalized and cynically exploited the poor majority of Haitians, I was conscious writing the book that, in order to portray accurately the roles of some in Haiti’s fractured and often violent political landscape, some holy cows would have to be slaughtered. I would have to speak honestly about the massive payouts made by the Aristide government to lobbyists and political actors in the United States, several of whom, including former U.S. Representative Ron Dellums, still wield considerable power with my country’s elected representatives. I would have to speak of the break I had with the analysis of some of those who, in progressive circles in North America, had been allowed to speak virtually unchallenged as authorities on Haiti for many years. The statements of individuals such as the American doctor Paul Farmer, whose public health work among Haiti’s poor I had always admired but whose continued vocal support of the Aristide government - a government that was victimizing that very same strata of Haitian society - I couldn’t condone, and Noam Chomsky, whose critiques of Haiti’s political travails were delivered via his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needed to be addressed by someone who had lived and moved among the Haitian people, spoke their language, and saw their struggles if there was ever to be an honest discourse of how to best help the country among progressives in the United States. As I regarded Mr. Chomsky’s work on Haiti in particular as fairly marginal to the larger discussion of the fate of Haiti’s poor, though, I restricted my commentary on him to only two (rather unflattering) paragraphs in the book’s 454 pages.

As the book was published, however, admitting that they themselves had not even read it in its entirety, Mr. Chomsky and his literary agent, the author Anthony Arnove, who, like Mr. Chomsky, has made a comfortable living for himself adopting a “radical” position while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire, launched a campaign against the book by berating my publisher Seven Stories (which also publish several Chomsky titles) on its contents and attempting, so it seemed, to scuttle its publication, or at least the press' support of it. Phone calls were made, emails were sent. Seven Stories, to its credit, stuck to its guns and published the book as written. Why, one might ask, would two such established authors be so threatened by a book penned on a poor Caribbean country by a working-class journalist and writer whom they had never met and whose work they admitted they had barely read? I must say that I was surprised, with all that is going on in the world, that my little book would warrant such attention from two individuals who like to portray themselves as champions of free speech.

These attempts to squelch the book ran roughly concurrently with the campaign against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy, asking, as it did, tough questions about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”

The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica. Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.

In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:

Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.

Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'

In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:

Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.

In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."

In a November 2005 column , Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:

An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'

Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.

The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”

Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”

So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced. There but for the grace of God (and a few gutsy editors) go I and many other journalists who have challenged the powerful.

Retracting our steps slightly, the actions of Chomsky and Arnove were by no means the only efforts to silence the voices of chronicled in my book or that of its author. The others - vituperative and false attacks by a violent and erratic Aristide crony named Patrick Elie, the eruption of Mr. Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban and a red-face, apparently unstable man named Jack Lieberman into a shouting, semi-hysterical tirade during a reading of mine in Miami resulting in the summoning (by whom I don’t know) of security personnel, photos of corpses emailed to me last November by a seemingly unbalanced graduate student from California named Jen Sprague, a December 2005 email from Miami celebrating the July 2005 murder of Haitian journalist (and friend) Jacques Roche - continued after the book’s publication and could make an entertaining if disturbing article in themselves. However, at the moment they would serve as a distraction from the issue at hand. Having lost so many friends to Haiti’s political violence over the last decade, I felt that the threats, whether they be professional or personal, that would be visited upon me because of the book were a small price to pay to get the truth of what happened to Haiti out.

This triumvirate of episodes as I have been mulling over them - the murder of Politkovskaya, the shutting down of free discouse at Columbia University and the campaign of a small privileged, insular and delusional elite to prevent the publication of views they deem objectionable by various methods - reminds me of nothing so much as the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” as relevant today as when it was penned in 1939:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

As long as those in positions of power, wherever they may be, are unchallenged authority figures assured of uncritical press coverage and an adoring public, no real dialogue will ever take place. From our prevaricating, duplicitous president here in the United States on down, they must be challenged. The fact is, some people can only react to criticism and dissent by trying to silence those individuals who are dissenting, quite often journalists. Free and open discourse? As human beings, perhaps, I think we still have a long way to go. But we as journalists cannot back down, cannot be intimidated into silence by those who would want to keep us from reporting unpopular and uncomfortable truths. There is too much at stake for us to take even a step back in defending our rights to report honestly on the struggles of the poor, the disenfranchised and the powerless. Journalists like Anna Politkovskaya paid the ultimate price so that struggle could go on, and we owe their memories at least that much.


Daniel Simidor said...

Re: "Shutting down of free discourse at Columbia"

An alternate account of what happened at Columbia last week is that the students/protesters went on stage to unfurl a banner, expecting they would be escorted off, as it has happened elsewhere. In this case, however, Gilchrist’s vigilante bodyguards jumped the students, punching and kicking them. How much of the Gilchrist show was meant as an exchange of ideas and how much was it a recruiting/propaganda campaign for more violence against very vulnerable people (undocumented immigrants, not “aliens”)? The fascist Gilchrist and his goons hardly qualify as a “minority” in need or deserving of protection. I would challenge any comparison between Gilchrist and the author of “Notes from the Last Testament” had that comparison not come from the author himself!


Michael Deibert said...


As I said in my posting, I have nothing but contempt for the views that Gilchrist and his cronies propagate. I am not comparing myself with him (and am certainly not comparing myself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!), but my opinion of the views of these two individuals hold is beside the point. The video of the event seems to clearly represents what happened: Gilchrist was speaking, a group of students stormed the stage, unfurled a banner and shouted him down, chanting and shouting so that nothing could be heard over the din. My support of the right of immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere in general, and Haitians in particular, is evident in my writings over the years (you will recall my reporting on the criminal expulsion of Haitians from the Dominican Republic in May 2005) and, as such, it would be hard to find an individual I would disagree with on the issue more than Mr. Gilchrist. But the behavior of the students in this instance, judging by the video, was manifestly anti-free speech behavior, designed to shut down debate rather than to comment on it or add to it.

As far as I am concerned, if someone invites him to speak, Jean-Bertrand Aristide should be allowed to speak in New York City, just as those who would wish to protests his appearance should be allowed to do so visibly and vocally outside the venue, though not in a way that would prohibit those wishing to hear the views being expressed from entering. Tough, probing questions can be posed in audience Q&A’s in a way that does not end debate. I have always felt that, if one has nothing to hide, why should one be afraid of debate? The inherent bigotry of the views of people like Gilchrist would be easily exposed in any discussion with an informed, able opponent, and as such I don't see what is gained by forbidding anyone, no matter how distasteful, from speaking. I think it is important not to shut people down in this way as their lies will out far more quickly in the light than they will in the dark. And perhaps all sides might, just might, begin to soften their positions and come to some more humane approach to whatever issue is being discussed. Perhaps hoping for that is naïve on my part, but I haven’t lost my faith in informed discourse swaying people far more than censorship


Sutton Stokes said...

Hear, hear, Michael. The bravest and most thoughtful people listen carefully to those they consider their enemies and best them with better ideas, if they can.

Thanks to the students of Columbia, Mr. Gilchrist leaves New York victorious over those who would expose him as the ignorant and shortsighted would-be demagogue that he is.

Do CU students honestly think that being shouted off a stage in NYC is a PR blow against Gilchrist? Now he gets to go home, hitch up his gunbelt, spit a tight stream of tobacco juice into the dry desert dust, and say, "I figured I might get shouted down in New York City, but I knew I had to try to get the message out anyway." This was an encounter Gilchrist will be all too happy to publicize -- if allowed, he will probably even be willing to post video of the scene on his own web site. (If I were his Goebbels, I would recommend it, in fact.)

Imagine the alternative: he is allowed to speak. Professors and students who have read up on the issue confront him -- politely but firmly -- during the Q&A. Against well-informed, passionate debating opponents, Gilchrist is shown to be the dunce that he is. All on record, all available to the public, including newcomers to the issue who are trying to understand what Gilchrist stands for.

I know which scenario I would have preferred, as opposed as I am to Mr. Gilchrist's goals.

sutton said...

And, on cue, Gilchrist himself (via CNN): "If Navarrette [a CNN columnist who recently criticized MP] truly wants to expose obstructionist groups, he should focus on some of what I consider real threats to civility, like Columbia University's Chicano Caucus and the International Socialist Organization, the two extremist elements that conspired in an effort to stamp out freedom of speech at Columbia University during a speech The Minuteman Project was invited to give on October 4, 2006."