On March 19, 2008, I participated in a well-attended event devoted to 9/11 evidence, organized by the University of Waterloo's student Debating Society. The principal speakers were Kee Dewdney, Professor Emeritus of mathematics and computer science at Waterloo, who outlined his refutation of official narratives about cellphone calls from the hijacked airliners; and Professor Graeme MacQueen, co-founder of McMaster University's Institute of Peace Studies, who presented his and mechanical engineer Tony Szamboti's refutation of the official analysis of the destruction of World Trade Center 1. Richard B. Lee, University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, introduced the speakers; I was moderator for the question period. During the break before question period, I was confronted in a highly insulting manner by an audience member whom I later discovered to be Professor Jeffrey Shallit of Waterloo's Department of Mathematics.
Several days later, Professor Shallit sent the following message to the participants in the event:
I attend[ed] the “debate-that-was-not-a-debate” about 9/11 on Wednesday, March 19, at the University of Waterloo. I have written a series of critical blog posts about the event, which you can find at my blog recursed.blogspot.com. I hope you will agree that I have been harsh in my criticism, but fair. If you feel that I have misrepresented what you said in any way, please let me know so that I can issue the appropriate correction. Of course, you are also welcome to comment directly on my blog. Or, if you prefer, feel free to send me e-mail and mention that you would like me to publish your response.
Regards, (Prof.) Jeffrey Shallit
I responded on March 25, 2008:
Dear Professor Shallit,
I am enclosing a response to you as an attachment to this message. You are welcome to post my text on your blog, provided you reproduce it in its entirety. I believe you owe me an apology for your grotesquely insulting behaviour to me on the evening of March 19th. Your language to me on that occasion had nothing to do with criticism, whether harsh or fair. Nor do repeated insinuations of Holocaust denial amount to an argument. Plato's Eleatic Stranger describes refutation as a blessing, “the chiefest and greatest of purifications” (Sophist 230d-e). I am perfectly willing to accept the blessing of refutation from those who think themselves wise or learned enough to bestow it—and I am no less willing to bestow the same benefit, perhaps more thoroughly, in return. However, I am not willing to accept abusive smears from you or anyone else.
Yours sincerely, Michael Keefer
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph
Professor Shallit promptly changed his mind about publishing my response on his blog. We did meet for lunch, and civil conversation, some months later. But since his blog posts about the 9/11 event and about what he calls “denialism” remain online, it seems appropriate to publish this response.
Professor Jeffrey Shallit,
University of Waterloo,
25 March 2008.
Dear Jeffrey Shallit,
I am responding to your invitation to engage in discussion with you. I am doing so in part because of some passing remarks about me in your Recursivity blog. After doing me the small favour of giving readers of your blog links to two of my articles touching on 9/11 evidence, you have commented there on my very minor role in the 9/11 event organized by the University of Waterloo Debating Society on March 19th—and on your own role as well—in a manner that calls for some correction.
1. Civility and slander
Your behaviour to me prior to the question period on March 19th, in what you are pleased in your blog to describe as an argument, surpassed in coarse and slanderous insinuation, and perhaps also in sheer noise, anything that I have experienced in nearly four decades of life as an academic. I did not imagine, when you addressed me with such evident rage, interrupting me repeatedly in a voice that rose almost to a shout, and insinuating to my face that I was a Holocaust denier, that the ludicrously insolent person in front of me could himself be an academic—much less a senior professor in the university to which I had come as an invited guest.
I have since learned, with some surprise, that you are a distinguished mathematician. I have learned as well that you have done work as a public intellectual—in debates over evolutionary biology, in refutations of the inanities of creationist pseudo-science, and in criticism of the toxic antisemitism and neo-fascism of the supposed historian David Irving—that I both respect and heartily approve of.
There is all the more reason to let you know how grotesque an insult your insinuation of Holocaust denial is. I have, as it happens, traveled quite widely in Poland. During those travels, I have walked on what I regard as sacred ground. I have stood within the first of the Nazi gas-chambers in the death camp at Majdanek, and in the vacant spaces that are all that remain of synagogues in Lublin and elsewhere. I have meditated in the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, next to Crakow. I have stood outside the cinema—once also a synagogue—in Kazimierz Dolny, and in the midst of the hillside monument of shattered gravestones, a kilometer outside that town, which is its only memorial to the 50 percent of its population who were murdered in the Shoah.
In mentioning these facts, I am not laying claim to any kind of spurious virtue-by-association-with-suffering. But I should like you to recognize—perhaps with some tincture of shame—the profound indecency of your insult, directed as it was to someone you had never met, and of whose work I suspect you knew nothing.
I note that in your blog you agree with an anonymous poster who suggests an analogy between “9/11 deniers and creationists.” You see “very strong parallels” between these two kinds of idiocy, but add that “the parallels are even stronger between 9/11 denialism and Holocaust denialism, and that’ll be the subject of a future post.”
Let us hope not. The logic involved in such a smear would disgrace a freshman. How would it go? “X and Y, who believe that highly placed people in the US government were responsible for the atrocities of 9/11, are also antisemites and Holocaust deniers. David Ray Griffin, John McMurtry and Michel Chossudovsky also believe that highly placed people in the US government were responsible for the atrocities of 9/11. Therefore, they too, and all other 9/11 sceptics as well, are antisemites and Holocaust deniers.” Golly! With logic like that, I could prove that Socrates had four legs and barked like a dog.
3. Civility again
I’d like to say something about a lesser issue of civility, and, in conclusion, about some matters of scholarship.
I wonder, first, what business it is of yours as a faculty member to contest so obstreperously the manner in which a student organization chooses to set up events that it holds on campus. Is there something in the constitution of the Debating Society that requires it to structure every event it sponsors as a contest of eristic rhetoric between two opposing sides? I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s any business of yours or mine to tell the members of the Society how to organize themselves. Academic freedom, as I understand it, is not merely a possession of tenured faculty, but a necessary condition for the proper functioning of a university, and hence something that students can also lay claim to, both inside the classroom and beyond it. That means, I believe, that people with the power and authority of faculty members should not be meddling in the affairs of student organizations.
Nor should faculty members take for granted the right to be among what, on March 19th, time constraints ensured could only be a very limited number of questioners at the end of the event. As moderator, I had in any case no inkling that you were a faculty member rather than, as I assumed, merely a very unpleasant member of the general public.
Yet despite your prior behaviour, had you been the first to raise your hand during the brief period of questions from the floor that I moderated, I would have recognized you as the first to ask a question. It so happens that half a dozen people, out of an audience of several hundred, were ahead of you. Nonetheless, when one of the speakers, your former colleague Professor Kee Dewdney, graciously intervened to ask that you be heard, I acquiesced—even though it meant that others lost their chance to speak.
Finally, some matters of scholarship. I find it amusing that a mathematician who has devoted some proportion of his recent energies to debates—very interesting debates, from what I’ve read—in evolutionary biology should so strenuously object to other scholars straying from the fields of their primary expertise. I tried to tell you on March 19th—but failed, due to loud and hectoring repetitions of your question about engineering expertise—that Professor Graeme MacQueen’s current work is not just interdisciplinary but collaborative: the study from which he read is being co-authored (as I believe he said in introducing it) with the mechanical engineer Tony Szamboti. I also tried, but failed, to let you know that large numbers of engineers and architects have gone on record as challenging the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission Report.
Should you be interested, you can find more than three hundred of them listed at http://patriotsquestion911.com.
I am surprised that you believe David Dunbar’s and Brad Reagan’s Debunking 9/11 Myths (2006) to be an adequate rejoinder to the writings of 9/11 sceptics. When you recommended it to the audience during the question period on March 19th, I was tempted for a moment to respond by holding up a copy of David Ray Griffin’s Debunking 9/11 Debunking (2007) which I had with me. But of course getting you, or the rest of the audience, up to date in your scholarship was not my role: it would have required me to mention, as well, Ryan Mackey’s monograph-length response to Griffin in the Journal of Debunking 911 Conspiracy Theories, 1.4, together with articles in the Journal of 9/11 Studies, responses to Mackey that have appeared elsewhere, and perhaps also the materials published at WTC Demolition Analysis (http://www.sharpprintinginc.com/911/). Hardly a moderator’s job, you might agree.
But I am led to wonder whether there is an adequate correspondence between the strength of your opinions on 9/11—in particular, the strength of your opinions about 9/11 sceptics—and the extent and thoroughness of your reading and research on the subject. I am drawn to this question by your apparent conviction that what you absurdly call “9/11 denialism” (wouldn’t “denialists” have to be people who claim that most or all of 9/11 never happened?) is a quasi-religious cult whose adherents share a common body of dogma. One doesn’t actually have to read very far to discover sharp differences of opinion among 9/11 researchers, as well as a willingness—at least among those whom I respect—to modify hypotheses in the face of new evidence and convincing counter-analysis.
I am myself more than happy to point out those errors that I am aware of in the two articles of mine that you linked to. The CounterPunch polemic, first published in November 2006, mentions a video in whose title Jeff King is incorrectly described as an MIT professor, and cites two people I would not now care to mention: Judy Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering whose 9/11 work I now regard as wholly groundless, and Eric Hufschmidt, who, as I was unaware at the time, is indeed the antisemite you imagine all 9/11 sceptics to be.1
The other essay, dating from August 2006, says things about philosopher of science Professor Jim Fetzer that I would not now repeat: my opinion that he had a “polite but formidable command of the facts” and also of “appropriate protocols of interpretation” has been at least partially refuted by Fetzer himself through his flirtation with no-plane and directed-energy-weapon hypotheses.2 Whether this weakens my argument about the bias and disinformation of the CBC program I criticized in that essay is for others to judge.
On some aspects of the 9/11 evidence, such as the Pentagon attack and the crash of Flight 93, I don’t feel that I have sufficient grounds for any firm opinion, beyond the obvious one that the US government has either withheld or lied about much of the material evidence. I don’t mind saying that I have found nothing on your Recursivity blog that would induce me to alter my views on these or other aspects of the 9/11 evidence.
Should you wish to publish this response on your blog, you are welcome to do so, provided that you reproduce it in its entirety. I will myself be circulating it to the organizers and the other participants in the March 19th event.
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph
1 The reference is to my essay “Into the Ring with CounterPunch on 9/11: How Alexander Cockburn, Otherwise So Bright, Blanks Out on 9/11 Evidence,” first published on November 4, 2006, and available at http://journalof911studies.com/letters/e/ProfKeeferRepliesToCockburnCounterpunch.pdf, and also (with corrections to two footnotes, at my website).
2 See “Anatomy of a Hatchet Job: CBC Radio's 'The Current' and Scholars for 9/11 Truth,” Centre for Research on Globalization (29 August 2006), http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=KEE20060829&articleid=30.