A sharp controversy has been raging in New York City Left circles for the past week, as one of the city’s few remaining Left spaces allowed a neo-Nazi to speak as part of a forum about the 9/11 attacks.
I had originally intended to not name names because the intent with this article is to discuss the broader issues raised, not only one specific incident. But as the issue has been widely discussed already, there isn’t any point to withholding the name of the locale, The Commons in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, this issue is much bigger than any one institution.
The basics are this: The owner of The Commons allowed the space to be used for a presentation by Christopher Bollyn, a virulent anti-Semite with a long history of publishing on neo-Nazi and white-supremacist sites. He was booked to speak as a “9/11 truther” who would talk on “9/11 and our Political Crisis.” Adding to the intrigue is that the owner of The Commons has herself been a prominent “9/11 truther.”
I don’t wish to paint with an overly broad brush. Many people who continue to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, do so out of genuine principle and attempt legitimate research. There is no reason to believe the official government account of that day, and one need not believe 9/11 an “inside job” to question the official narrative. (So as to not hide my own perspective, I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job,” for multiple reasons, and I am skeptical of the so-called “truther” movement.)
Although reasonable research merits support, we should distinguish between people who investigate the commercial ties of Bush II/Cheney administration members or who make scientific inquiries into the physical properties of the World Trade Center materials that were destroyed on 9/11 from the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that shade off into the considerable anti-Semitism that permeates the “truther” movement. That movement consistently provides platforms for rabid anti-Semites, and that is to their cause’s detriment.
On what basis do we defend an objectionable speaker?
This issue is impossible to disentangle from the Right’s continual conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel for its apartheid policies and other crimes against humanity in its ongoing subjugation of Palestinians from blanket accusations against all Jews. Critics of Israel routinely do so. Ironically, one defender of the owner of The Commons decided to build on Right-wing tactics of misinformation by inverting the meaning of words when he absurdly claimed that “There are zionist-fascists who are trying to destroy The Brooklyn Commons as a venue for radical events.”
Huh? People who oppose neo-Nazism, and condemn anti-Semitism on a Left basis, are fascists — and Zionists! Truly remarkable. That statement can be dismissed as the desperate agitprop of an individual who has burned many a bridge. But what of the owner of The Commons herself? When asked to cancel the appearance of Christopher Bollyn, she responded with a lengthy statement that seems to have since been pulled from her venue’s web site. But, in part, she wrote:
“I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space.”
That is not unreasonable. But once it was brought to her attention, she could have canceled the event, as Busboys and Poets in Washington and the Unitarian Society of Hartford swiftly did when confronted with the nature of the speaker. Two paragraphs later, however, she wrote:
“I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.”
Nobody is asking for a “cozy cocoon,” and the many groups and individuals aren’t objecting because Bollyn is from another part of the political spectrum, but because he represents something that ought to be out of bounds anywhere: A Holocaust denier and an advocate of an ideology that calls for (and has attempted) genocide. There can be no “debate” with that. To deny the Holocaust is to endorse the murder of 6 million Jews and the Nazi ideology behind it. If we are part of the human race, we give no quarter to that. Period.
One other passage stood out in The Commons’ owner’s response. Although the venue has consistently been promoted as a Left space (and many Left organizations have offices there), she wrote:
“Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Lies and damned lies
If I were an advocate of charter schools, I sure would be upset at being grouped with a neo-Nazi. To be sure, advocates of charter schools peddle lies about the performance of them, and knowingly do so in the hopes of destroying public schools systems, reducing education to narrow training schools for future corporate drones and busting unions. Alas, there are liberals, unable to free themselves of corporate ideology, who go along with this, thereby making themselves useful dupes. But discussion of charter schools is a legitimate topic, however much we disagree with them.
The purpose of the above defenses is to obfuscate the issue and turn it into one of “censorship” and of Leftists’ supposed inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints. This is the first I had heard of charter-school advocates booking the space and although I might not like that, there is no comparison to inviting a neo-Nazi.
Another defender of the decision to allow Bollyn to speak, Nathan J. Robinson, did so under the straightforward title “Let The Kooks Speak. They will only embarrass themselves.” Writing in Current Affairs, Mr. Robinson said:
“[T]he best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.”
He backs up this viewpoint by citing what he says happened at the talk:
“[A]ccording to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a ‘pathetic spectacle’ with the ‘supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.’ The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that ‘not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,’ and that and that once you ‘strip away everything else … here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.’ So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.”
Facing the larger issue
The point, however, isn’t that a raving anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and claims Jews assassinated John F. Kennedy to take over the U.S. government could be convincing. The issue here isn’t this or that individual speaker, it is the failure to confront anti-Semitism, racism and associated social ills. None of the defenders of allowing the speaker to talk have bothered to address the larger issue of the anti-Semitism that pervades the “truther” movement.
Take one prominent example. Many a “truther” (including some I personally know) repeat the preposterous argument that two, or five, (depending on the version) Mossad agents were “jumping up and down with joy” as the World Trade Center towers came down. This, sadly, seems to be widely believed among “truthers.”
Were these agents the same ones who called 2,000 Jews the night before to tell them not to go to work? What a busy day. Maybe the conversation went like this: “Yitzhak, Shlomo here. The family is fine, thank you. Listen, Yitzhak, I can’t stay on the phone; I’ve got another 500 to call tonight, but please stay home tomorrow because we’re taking out the towers. Oy, I better get time and a half for all these hours.”
Did the Mossad agents identify themselves to onlookers? Were they wearing Mossad name tags? (Maybe the tag read, “Hi, my name is Shlomo. I’m a Mossad assassin. How can I help you?”) Can anybody imagine one of the most professional (and thus deadly) spy agencies on Earth being so ham-fisted and obvious? No. Why would such a preposterous story gain traction for even a second? Because of belief, even if held unconsciously, that Jews constitute some sort of cabal, and when that arises on the Left it is among those who are unable to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.
I suppose that is not completely separable from a belief that because the U.S. government, or the Bush II/Cheney administration (take your pick) is capable of evil acts, all evil acts are done by them and thus 9/11 has to be an “inside job.” This is reductionist thinking. The irony of inside-job belief is that is actually lets U.S. foreign policy off the hook! Maybe people in the Middle East really are pissed off about the oppression they’ve endured thanks to U.S. imperialism and maybe some of them, with a deficit of political knowledge or guidance, decided that individual acts of terrorism would be their response.
Evil individuals or a rotten system?
We really need to get beyond the idea that no so much as a leaf moves without the CIA being behind it. I write that as someone fully aware of the CIA’s record (and have recounted it in numerous articles and in my book.) The CIA is not a secret cabal of evil people; it is simply the government agency that carries out much of the dirty work that is required to maintain capitalism and the U.S. as the financial and military center of it. If the CIA didn’t exist, some other agency would be doing that work.
Much of the 9/11 “truther” movement derives from an unwillingness to grapple with the concrete realities of the capitalist system, and the structural inequalities and oppression built into it. The CIA is not ultimately the problem; it is the system it serves.
Unfortunately, it is far easier to indulge in conspiracy theories than to systematically analyze the world we live in. Those evil doers did it! Let’s get rid of those bad people and all will be well! Anti-Semites who cast Jews in the role of evil doers, and assign responsibility for all ills to them, are just a more extreme version of conspiracy-theory mongers and, ultimately, lie on a continuum.
This I suspect is why otherwise rational people exhibit a willingness to believe ideas that fall apart once they are examined seriously, and why the “truther” movement is unwilling, or unable, to separate itself from unexamined, often unconscious anti-Semitism (such as the Mossad agents jumping for joy) nor even from outright virulent anti-Semitism that goes so far as to deny the Holocaust. Even if someone was unfamiliar with Bollyn before this episode (I, for example, had never heard of him), the most basic Internet search would find his work. The New York Left activist Carol Lipton, for example, did a quick search and found:
“Bollyn also makes repeated reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Bollyn regularly appears on David Duke’s blogs, blames Jews for all the ills in the world, is a strident Holocaust denier who refers to the ‘Holohoax,’ and has been quoted across Twitter in hundreds of posts to show everyone his fiercely Jew-obsessed and Jew-hating statements. He is credited by some 9/11 truthers with originating the theory that Israel and Mossad were to blame for 9/11. He blames Israel for everything from Orlando to problems in Ukraine. He was formerly a long-term writer with the American Free Press, a white supremacist newspaper that was founded by fascist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby.”
The online magazine JewSchool similarly had little difficulty finding Bollyn’s rants, publishing a long list of his nonsense, including numerous mentions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” well known as a crude forgery concocted by the frantically anti-Semitic régime of Tsarist Russia.
Taking a stand, even at a cost
To their credit, several Left organizations that are tenants of The Commons issued a statement condemning Bollyn’s appearance:
“As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.”
One regular user of the space, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, has said it will “pull all of its classes and upcoming events” and go elsewhere, even though this will cause itself problems in the near term. And that brings up to the final point for now. Should a space that booked a neo-Nazi be boycotted?
That is not so easy to answer, especially for those familiar with the effect runaway gentrification has had on New York City real estate. This, alas, has to be practical discussion. One prominent Left activist, with a well-earned reputation for integrity, argues that any organization that stays by renewing its lease would lose its credibility and that people should cut its ties with the venue. Another prominent Left activist, with a similar reputation, argues the opposite, saying that to leave would be to allow the far Right to drive us out. “We have hardly any spaces left and an easily accessible space, such as The Commons, that includes both meeting rooms and a hall for large gatherings is not something we should easily abandon — such spaces are central to our organizing,” she said.
There is no simple answer here. For years, The Commons has provided a low-cost space for a variety of Left causes and events, and the Left organizations that rent office space do so at below market rates. (Full disclosure: I have given talks there, had my first book party there and have attended dozens of events.) It is very painful to have to have this discussion, but it has been forced upon us.
The question of real estate in a capitalist economy looms large here. If housing and real estate were not capitalist commodities, and instead meeting places and centers for organizers were part of a public commons, this discussion would not be necessary; organizers would not be dependent on the decisions of one person who, as the owner of a private property, is not necessarily answerable to a broader community. Organizers may choose to “vote with their feet,” but those would be individual decisions.
Housing should be a human right, and would be in a better world, but an incident such as under discussion here reminds us that the the issue of space goes beyond basic housing — the restoration of a public commons needs to be central to our struggles.