Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: Illegitimate Pressure on the University of Windsor Student Union

This letter was first published as “Prof. Michael Keefer's Letter to U. Of Windsor President: Illegitimate pressure on the University of Windsor Student Union over BDS,” Independent Jewish Voices Canada (12 March 2014),; and as “Keefer: Letter to UW President calling on him to support Academic Freedom,” (14 March 2014),


Dr. Alan Wildeman
President & Vice-Chancellor
University of Windsor
12 March 2014

Dear Dr. Wildeman,

I am writing to tell you how dismayed I am by your attempt to have the student union on your campus suppress the results of a student referendum in which a substantial majority voted to support the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions that seeks, through peaceful means, to induce the state of Israel to comply with international law and end its oppression of the Palestinians.

I believe that the position you have taken violates the principle of academic freedom—which I regard as being not just a privilege to which tenured academics lay claim, but a foundational principle of the university, and something to be protected for all members of the university community. Of course, a commitment to academic freedom implies at the same time a commitment to civil, humane, and rational discourse, whose goal might be described, in the simplest terms, as one of determining truths (to the best of our abilities) and disseminating them.

I believe that faculty and administrators have a joint responsibility to ensure that discourse within our universities lives up to these standards—and a responsibility, as well, to act in defense of members of the university community who are subjected, from within the university or outside it, to discourse that violates those standards and that commitment to truth—by, for example, having recourse to smears, defamation, and ad hominem attacks of the sort that have been heaped upon the organizers and supporters of this referendum.

I would ask you to consider whether you are living up to this responsibility. The international struggle in support of the rights of Palestinians is one of the great moral issues of our time. It is not an edifying spectacle when a university president obstructs students who are engaging, civilly, humanely, and rationally in that struggle.

I do not ask you to take my word as to the moral import of this struggle. Take instead the word of one of Israel's most distinguished sociologists, Eva Illouz, a full professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the recipient of major academic awards in the United States, France, and Germany, and also concurrently the President of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, her country's national art academy.

Professor Illouz proposed in a long essay published in the newspaper Haaretz on February 7, 2014 that the 19th-century anti-slavery debate in the United States provides a useful analogue to help us understand the present-day debate over the morality of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, which (as other scholars have also observed) has divided Jews both in Israel and internationally. In that essay, to which she gave the resonant title “47 years a slave,” Professor Illouz argues that Palestinians under Israeli occupation are living in what amounts to “conditions of slavery.”

Note, please, that Illouz's essay, together with the work of other distinguished Jewish public intellectuals, including Judith Butler, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Jacqueline Rose, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, Shulamit Aloni, and Yakov Rabkin, refutes any claim that profound and systematic critiques of Israeli policies and structures of governance can be dismissed as antisemitic.

You accept at face value the statements of some members of your academic community that they feel “threatened” by the outcome of the student referendum, and you appear to regard this as a reason to invalidate it. I would propose that except in cases where the people in question have been subjected to clear deviations from proper standards of civility and humaneness (which would include racist language of any kind), such claims to victim status should be rejected—gently, but firmly—as attempts to infantilize universities, which are or should be places for adult discourse.

It is easy to understand how shocked and saddened a student can be who has grown up thinking of Israel as a great good place, and then discovers that there may be compelling reasons to think otherwise. But the intellectual and moral growth of university students often includes moments of painful cognitive dissonance and dislocation. One should treat such students sympathetically, while at the same time remembering that however arduous it may be for them to deal with competing ethical commitments—which may include well-substantiated claims that some of their prior commitments cannot measure up to generally accepted standards of justice and decency—these students are not in any sense victims of those who invite them to consider unfamiliar evidence and arguments; they are maturing adults.

The real victims are the Palestinians subjected by the state of Israel—with the Canadian state's full complicity—to what Eva Illouz calls “conditions of slavery.” These are the people to whom the BDS movement brings support and solidarity, and whose oppression it seeks by peaceful means to end.

I invite you to move beyond an uncritical acceptance of the slanders of opponents of the BDS movement, to read the statements of its Palestinian proponents, and to learn why it has gathered the support of so many leading Jewish scholars and public intellectuals. You will also learn to respect the courage, integrity, and decency of the supporters of this movement within your own academic community.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,

Michael Keefer
Professor Emeritus, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph


Affaire Hessel à L'ENS: une pétition internationale pour la liberté d'expression

I was co-signatory, along with 152 other academics, of a petition/open letter launched by Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric, University of California Berkeley, Michael Harris, Professor of Mathematics, Université Paris-Diderot, and Natalie Zemon Davis, Professor of History, University of Toronto. The text is published at Contretemps (22 March 2011),

Une pétition à Monique Canto-Sperber, directrice de l'École Normale Supérieure, Paris-Diderot

Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric, University of California Berkeley Michael Harris, Professor of Mathematics, Université Paris-Diderot Natalie Zemon Davis, Professor of History, University of Toronto and 153 others

Nous, soussignés universitaires américains, canadiens et britanniques ayant de nombreux et prolongés contacts avec la France, et qui avons longtemps admiré le rôle historique de l’Ecole normale supérieure dans la vie intellectuelle de ce pays, sommes consternés par les récents événements au sein de cette école. L’action de la directrice, Monique Canto-Sperber—l'interdiction d'une conférence de Stéphane Hessel d’abord, puis le refus d'autoriser le Collectif Palestine ENS de tenir une réunion sur le campus, constitue un déni des droits de la liberté d'expression et la liberté de réunion. Hessel est, à 93 ans, un ancien élève de l’ENS, un membre de la Résistance, un survivant de Buchenwald, et l'un des auteurs de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme et du récent best-seller Indignez-vous!, dans lequel il critique (entre autres choses) le traitement des Palestiniens par Israël. Nous ne sommes guère convaincus par le raisonnement de la directrice et du Conseil d’Etat, qui estiment que ces réunions constituent une menace à l’ordre public ou qu’elles tombent hors de la responsabilité qu’a l’ENS de garantir à tous les étudiants la liberté d’expression et le droit de réunion. L'action de la directrice constitue une exception à la tolérance qui est d’usage dans cette Ecole à l’égard de l'action politique des étudiants, et il s’agit d’une exception récurrente, visant à faire taire unilatéralement l’une des positions d’un débat nécessaire sur le conflit israélo-palestinien. Nous pensons que les actes de la directrice vont à l’encontre d’une longue tradition de liberté d’expression politique au sein de l’ENS, telle que décrite dans sa propre publicité : «L’École normale supérieure fut pendant des décennies le haut lieu de la vie intellectuelle et scientifique française. Elle a participé à tous les grands débats d’idées qu’a connus la France moderne, de l’affaire Dreyfus aux mouvements des années 30, de la fondation des sciences humaines à l’avant-garde des années 70». Nous appelons la directrice à modifier ses décisions et à restaurer la liberté académique, une pratique longtemps associée à cette institution reconnue.

Defending Critical Research into 9/11

The primary content of this piece was first published among the comments to an article by Robyn Urback, “Research grant to fund conspiracy theories? University of Lethbridge student awarded $7,714 to investigate war on terror 'truth',” Maclean's (26 November 2010),


The short texts reproduced here were occasioned by a minor outbreak of McCarthyist journalism in the autumn of 2010. It was initiated by Jonathan Kay of the National Post, who had recently published Among the Truthers, an attempt to explain, in the inept vocabulary of pop psychology, the phenomenon of scepticism about the official narrative about the events of September 11, 2001 and the “global war on terror” which that narrative legitimized.

On November 25, 2010, Kay devoted his column to what might seem a bizarrely petty subject: the fact that the University of Lethbridge had awarded a quite modest graduate fellowship to Joshua Blakeney, a student who planned, under the supervision of Professor Anthony Hall, to write an MA thesis that would “evaluate the content, quality and veracity of the body of literature that both supports and criticizes the government version of history used to justify the invasions and domestic transformations that make up the GWOT [Global War On Terrorism].”1

My own assessment of such a research proposal would be that, barring rigorous selectiveness as to how much of the field it attempted to cover, the subject risked being much too large for an MA thesis.

Kay thought it deficient in other respects—first, because he knew that both Professor Hall and Joshua Blakeney had expressed vocal doubts about the veracity of that “government version of history,” and secondly because Blakeney's research proposal indicated that his and Professor Hall's interest in “debates and controversies concerning the originating events of the GWOT” had been stimulated “by the scholarship of a number of academics including professors David Ray Griffin, John McMurtry, Michel Chossudovsky, Graeme MacQueen, Michael Keefer, Peter Dale Scott, Stephen Jones, Niels Harrit, and Nafeez Ahmed.” These names, Kay remarked,

effectively constitute a who's-who of the most influential Canadian, American and British 9/11 Truth conspiracy theorists. [....]

In other words, the University of Lethbridge—and, through the province of Alberta's funding arrangements, the taxpayers of Alberta—are paying a British graduate student $7,714 to pursue his conspiracy theory that the 9/11 attacks were staged by Washington.

Does anyone else see a problem with that?2

I would have liked to post a comment on the National Post website, indicating that I saw two problems with Jonathan Kay's own column—the first being a transparent McCarthyism, and another more serious one being a matter of intellectual dishonesty.

That might seem a severe judgment, but Kay interviewed me at length in 2009 for his Truthers book. Knowing him to have had a scientific education, I gave him detailed guidance during that interview and in follow-up correspondence as to the scientific studies and the physical, chemical, and materials-science evidence that underlies my own rejection of the “government narrative” of the three World Trade Center skyscraper collapses on 9/11. One would not guess from Kay's book, or from anything else he's written on the subject, that such information as this existed.

It would be absurd to demand that others automatically assent to my own interpretations of such matters. But I do observe that Jonathan Kay knows very well that scepticism about the government narrative of 9/11 is supported by a substantial body of unchallenged peer-reviewed scientific evidence, some of it published by Stephen Jones and Niels Harrit. He should also know, if he has read any of the books on 9/11 by David Ray Griffin, Michel Chossudovsky, Peter Dale Scott, and Nafeez Ahmed, as well as essays by John McMurtry, Graeme MacQueen, and others, that a large amount of other evidence points in the same direction. For him to give no hint of this, while smearing as “conspiracy theorists” the scientists and scholars who have helped to assemble and to analyze this evidence, is dishonest.

I am not writing out of any animus over my own treatment in Jonathan Kay's book. Aside from his suppression of serious evidence with which I know him to have been acquainted, my only objection to the three pages he devoted to me in the first chapter of Among the Truthers would be that he gave readers an inflated impression of my academic reputation as a scholar of Renaissance literature and early modern philosophy.

I would have liked to raise a parallel objection to being included among a list of “influential” 9/11 sceptics in Kay's November 25th article: I am indeed a 9/11 sceptic, but the characterization “influential” is in my estimation untrue. (In this case, to be fair, the error was Joshua Blakeney's: Kay merely quoted and commented on his list.) However, I was unable to post a response to Kay's article on the National Post website. Since no comments of any kind appear under the article in question, I suppose that the comments function must have been deliberately disabled.

Kay's stirring of the pot was quickly taken up in Maclean's magazine by Robyn Urback, who on the next day, November 26, 2010, published a short article whose title ends with a question mark: “Research grant to fund conspiracy theories?”3 Perhaps she hoped the grant would be withdrawn.

Urback's trajectory in this piece is interesting. To her mind, the “lunacy” of using tax dollars “to fund conspiracy theories” was “readily apparent.” But unexpectedly, she deviated into what looked like a defense of academic freedom, writing that “the expectation of graduate research is that it challenges the status quo and seeks to break through conventional belief.” Though feeling “little faith” that Blakeney's MA thesis could amount to more than “9/11 jabber,” she proposed that “academic freedom would be compromised if taxpayers could suddenly decide which theses were worth their dollar.” But then another swerve took her to her real goal:

Indeed, I think the outrage is warranted [...], but if anything, this situation just reinforces the need to establish a fully private post-secondary education system.4

I took this as a starting point in commenting on Robyn Urback's article.


1. Comment on Robyn Urback “Research grant to fund conspiracy theories? University of Lethbridge student awarded $7,714 to investigate war on terror 'truth',” Maclean's (26 November 2010), posted on 27 November at 4:52 p.m.

Let's ask ourselves a simple question. Why do Canadians think it important to pay for publicly funded universities—including paying the salaries of real scholars who do actual research as well as teaching, and including the provision of research grants to support graduate students who will go on to become university researchers and teachers themselves?

One reason, I would suggest, is that Canadians still see some value in being able to distinguish between critically sifted historical actualities and the miasmal deceptions of propaganda. We still see some value in being assisted to an understanding of the forces at work in contemporary history by people who (as Shakespeare's Hamlet put it) can show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Professor Anthony Hall of Lethbridge University is a scholar of high distinction whose two books, The American Empire and the Fourth World (2004) and Earth Into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism (2010), both published by McGill-Queen's University Press, are major contributions to an understanding of North American history.

The sneering attacks by Jonathan Kay and now also by Robyn Urback on the quite modest research funding that the University of Lethbridge is offering to Professor Hall's graduate student Joshua Blakeney are easily identifiable as McCarthyist gutter journalism. But it may not be immediately obvious how much is at stake in this apparently quite minor controversy.

A significant number of young Canadians, serving in good faith and courageously in a war whose only justification is the official narrative of the events of 9/11, have been killed and maimed in Afghanistan. (Let us add that a much larger number of Afghans have been killed, maimed, or tortured as a result of our presence in their country.)

But that official narrative about 9/11—that official conspiracy theory—is, from top to bottom, untrue. The key evidence adduced by the 9/11 Commission Report was all based upon torture, and the pseudo-scientific explanations of the destruction of the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 that were offered by the US government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been refuted by independent scientific studies that show the buildings were brought down by explosive demolition.

I am a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada. In early October of this year, I stood on the College's parade square with several hundred other ex-cadets, including more than fifty from the class in which I graduated forty years ago, and watched as two currently serving officer cadets were presented with awards given to them by the bereaved families—parents, widows, and small children—of two RMC graduates recently killed in Afghanistan. I grieved then for the loss of those young lives, and I grieve now.

I do not want to see any more young Canadians killed or maimed in a war that is grounded in a pack of lies about the events of 9/11.

How then would I describe the behaviour of those, whether journalists or fellow citizens, who seek to obstruct, through mockery or through threats of de-funding, the honest research of scholars in Canadian universities into what happened on 9/11, and into the ways in which the events of that day have been so thoroughly obfuscated?

I have one word to describe that mockery, and those threats. They are contemptible.


2. An addendum, posted on 27 November 2010 at 6:18 p.m.

How interesting: the British newspaper The Independent has named Professor Hall's Earth Into Property as one of the best books of 2010. (See “The best books for Christmas: Our pick of 2010,” The Independent [26 November 2010].)


3. A response by David Leitch, Ph.D., 27 November 2010 at 9:07 p.m.

One of the first posts in response to Robyn Urback's article had been by David Leitch, who identified himself as “a recent graduate of a Ph.D. program here in Canada,” and professed himself “fairly appalled at the fact that government-dispensed grant money is going to fund such nonsense. [....] What I cannot fathom is that some granting agency actually gave credence to a verifiably false thesis: that the United States government somehow orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.” Expressing his faith in NIST's report on the collapse of the Twin Towers, Dr. Leitch marvelled that anyone could “honestly believe” that a government incapable of preventing the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents relating to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and including confidential diplomatic cables, “could possibly keep a MASSIVE conspiracy under wraps” for a week, let alone nearly a decade.

Dr. Leitch responded aggressively to my first post:

“You're accusing the NIST of pseudo-science? Do you have advanced degrees in Civil, Structural, Mechanical, and Materials Engineering? Architecture? Physics? Do you even know what the NIST is actually tasked with, or how many other agencies and groups contributed to that report? The NIST is NOT the US government—they are about as apolitical as you can get. Throw in for good measure the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Fire Protection Engineers, National Fire Protection Association, American Institute of Steel Construction, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, and the Structural Engineers Association of New York. But I guess all these groups are in on the conspiracy too hey? Just how many tens of thousands of people are 'in the know' about 'the truth,' and why have none of these people come forward with any shred of evidence to support the controlled demolition theory? And where are these independent scientific studies that refute the NIST report? Are they published? Certainly the NIST report is not perfect, no scientific paper ever is, but making the leap to controlled demolition is ludicrous. Ever heard of Occam's Razor? Everyone in the entire world saw planes hit those buildings. Why is there a need to invoke an astronomically complex plan to blow the buildings up? And no, analyzing YouTube videos does not count as scientific. [....]”


4. My response, posted on 30 November 2010 at 8:54 p.m.

A quick seminar for David Leitch, who doesn't like criticism of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

   i. “As apolitical as you can get?”

NIST, an agency of the US Department of Commerce, was under direct Bush administration control. A NIST whistleblower went public in 2007, claiming that NIST had been “fully hijacked from the scientific into the political realm,” and that their work on 9/11 evidence was done under direct surveillance by the National Security Agency, senior officials of the Department of Commerce, and President Bush's Office of Management and Budget. (See David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited, pp. 11-12.)

   ii. Some scientific studies:

(a) Steven Jones at al., “Extremely high temperatures during the World Trade Center destruction,” Journal of 9/11 Studies (January 2008); 
(b) Kevin Ryan et al., “Environmental anomalies at the World Trade Center: evidence for energetic materials,” The Environmentalist (August 2008); 
(c) Graeme MacQueen and Tony Szamboti, “The Missing Jolt: A Simple Refutation of the NIST-Bazant Collapse Hypothesis,” Journal of 9/11 Studies (January 2009); 
(d) Niels Harrit et al., “Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe,” The Open Chemical Physics Journal 2 (2009).

   iii. Plus two studies of witness evidence, both by Graeme MacQueen:

(a) “118 Witnesses: The Firefighters' Testimony to Explosions in the Twin Towers,” Journal of 9/11 Studies (August 2006); 
(b) “Waiting for Seven: WTC 7 Collapse Warnings in the FDNY Oral Histories,” Journal of 9/11 Studies (January 2008).

   iv. Occam's Razor

Yes, I've heard of it. If David Leitch cares to look up William of Occam's Reportatio II (Book 3 of his Super quatro libros sententiarum), q. 150, he'll learn that Occam himself thought the so-called “Razor”—his injunction against “multiplying entities” in causal explanations—doesn't apply to observations of physical events.

Of course two hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers. But NIST's account of the buildings' destruction has been refuted, and the clear scientific evidence that explosives were used is massively supported by the testimony of witnesses.

   v. Since we've strayed into medieval philosophy....

Let's hear what another English Franciscan, Roger Bacon, said in the opening section of his Opus Maius about the causes of error.

“The four chief obstacles to grasping truth,” he says, “are submission to incorrect and unworthy authority; the influence of custom; popular prejudice; and concealment of our ignorance, accompanied by an ostentatious display of our knowledge.”

Ouch. (That last phrase hurts.) Does the shoe pinch you as well, Dr. Leitch?


5. An objection by 'George', posted on 1 December 2010 at 3:42 a.m.

Dear Michael Keefer,

I hope you know your use of “scientific evidence” is terribly misguided, and that you are just pretending and are performing a study to see how people react to your statements... Sure the Journal of 9/11 Studies and The Open Chemical Physics Journal contained peer-reviewed “science”—to the ability of those peers. There's a reason who those “peers” are stuck submitting their articles into the open version of a real science journal, and the Journal of the 9/11 Conspiracy.

“...the clear scientific evidence that explosives were used...” What is this scientific evidence exactly? I fear you mean “the clear YouTube video analysis...”


6. Signing off, on 2 December 2010 at 11:04 p.m.


I'm sorry—I forgot to mention that the six studies I mentioned are all available online: Google will fetch them for you in an instant. Do please read them and form your own opinion of their significance.




1  Joshua Blakeney, MA research proposal quoted by Jonathan Kay, “University of Lethbridge pays student $7,714 to pursue 9/11 conspiracy theories,” National Post (25 November 2010),

2  Kay, “University of Lethbridge pays student $7,714.”

3  Robyn Urback, “Research grant to fund conspiracy theories? University of Lethbridge student awarded $7,714 [to] investigate war on terror 'truth',” Maclean's (26 November 2010),

4  Ibid.   

The Waterloo March 19th, 2008 9/11 Event: A Response

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:

Dear Colleagues:

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 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.

2. Logic

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.

4. Scholarship

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

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 ( 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.

Yours sincerely, 
Michael Keefer
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, 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),   

‘9/11 conspiracy questions’: a response to Dr. Dave Baxter

On 14 September 2006 I delivered a public lecture at the University of Guelph, entitled “Manufacturing Terror: 9/11 and the Toronto 17.” A sneering and dismissive assessment of the lecture, or at least of that part of it relating to the events of September 11, 2001, promptly appeared in the campus student newspaper, The Ontarion. Although the letter's author purported to be a member of the university community, no person of that name seems to have been attached to any academic or administrative unit of the University of Guelph; 'Dr. Dave Baxter' may then have been a pseudonym. My response appeared in the Letters column of the next issue of The Ontarion.

An ill-tempered diatribe by Dr. Dave Baxter which appeared among last week’s Letters to the Editor leaves one wondering whether its author is trying harder to expose himself as rude, as ignorant, or as just plain silly.

Dr. Baxter tells us that philosophers and historians, unlike the practitioners of such apparently despised fields “as computer science, engineering and […] English literature,” are “specifically trained to analyze the logical and rational basis of evidentiary events,” and are thus uniquely qualified to make sense of the events of September 11, 2001.

Baxter must have received his own intellectual formation in some other discipline—telepathy perhaps, or judicial astrology—since although he declares himself “sorry to have missed” my public lecture of September 14th, he is nonetheless able to describe its contents as “wildly irresponsible,” as “intellectual hogwash,” and as “anemic posturing.”

Baxter is confident that “no recognized philosopher or historian” can be found among 9/11 skeptics. I’m not going to descend with him into a contest of making idiotic lists of names: if he possessed any serious understanding of either of the disciplines he professes to admire, he would know that arguments from authority haven’t swung much weight among philosophers since the early seventeenth century at least, and that reputable historians have always settled their disputes not by citing big names, or for that matter by pasting cheap polemical labels on one another’s work, but rather through scrupulous critical analyses of the available evidence.

Dr. Baxter wonders what “actual substantive evidence” I might have to support my opinion that 9/11 was an inside job. I’m afraid his rudeness rather takes the edge off any desire I might otherwise have had to educate the man. If he really wants to know, he’ll have to keep an eye out for my next public lecture or essay on the subject. In the mean time, he’ll get much fuller satisfaction from the writings of Michel Chossudovsky, Paul Thompson, David Ray Griffin, Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed, Michael Ruppert, and Steven Jones which I recommended to my audience on September 14th.

Dr. Baxter might also want to cure himself of what could otherwise become a habit of making misleading appeals to authority. It really won’t do to shut people up by quoting (wholly out of context) the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Those of us who have read more than just the concluding sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus might think his words in proposition 6.5 of that text more relevant: “If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.”

The question of whether 9/11 was an instance of US government-organized false-flag terrorism has indeed been framed, and it has been answered as well. As I made abundantly clear to my audience on September 14th, I would like my own answer—and all of the others as well—to be treated not with uncritical credulity but with cautious skepticism. Many of the relevant facts—those relating, for example, to military exercises that disabled the US air defenses on 9/11, to the stated geopolitical motives of the governing elite, and to government cover-ups, disinformation, and destruction of evidence—are securely established and uncontroversial. Other issues, such as the causes of the collapses of three steel-frame skyscrapers in the World Trade Center, are still disputed—and although to my mind the testimonial, photographic, and materials-science evidence of planned demolition is unambiguous, a range of interpretations remains possible.

As Dr. Dave Baxter ought to know, these are issues that scholars and scientists who make any claim to intellectual integrity will seek to resolve through critical inquiry, scientific analysis and scrupulous debate, rather than through vacuous rhetoric, name-calling, and bullying.

Michael Keefer
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies

Revolution Inc.

First published in the University of Guelph's weekly student newspaper, The Ontarion 134.13 (12 April-2 May 2001): 5. I have corrected one notable error, and have added footnotes, which did not appear in the text as originally published; the third, fourth and fifth of these notes cite sources which I drew upon in writing this piece. My concluding suggestion of a Latin motto for graduating students also did not appear in the article as first published.

Gnothi seauton in the Greek original, Nosce teipsum in Latin translation: “Know thyself.” Even the current arbiters of cool would have us accept this injunction of the Delphic Oracle as a goal of human thought: when in The Matrix Keanu Reeves is taken by Samuel Jackson to meet THE Oracle, he finds a Hollywood-Idiot-Latin version of the saying hung up over her kitchen door.

But when the Roman poet Virgil declared that person to be happy who knows the causes of things—Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas—he was suggesting that knowledge of the self won’t take us very far unless it includes knowledge of the world which contains and conditions that self.

Virgil’s words—Rerum Cognoscere Causas—are actually the motto of this university. They imply a commitment to developing an understanding of what's going on, a commitment, if you like, to truth. (In recent years that motto has been largely displaced by a more banal English tag, “Changing Lives, Improving Life”—which, though pleasantly up-beat, contains no reference to knowledge or truth.)1 But the University of Guelph's original Virgilian motto—adopted, one would suppose, at the time of its founding in the 1960s—was a sign that the institution believed itself not just to be imparting knowledge (skills, theories, or facts), but also fashioning people who, through an understanding of the causes shaping them and the world they inhabited, would be able to participate in a principled, creative re-fashioning and transformation of that world—and perhaps of their own identities as well.

The functions and the self-understanding of universities have themselves been radically transformed since those far-away 1960s, as one result of a socio-political revolution which has swept across the English-speaking world, and which in its further expansion has taken the name of “globalization.” I’m talking about the Corporatist Revolution.

Never heard of it? If so, you’ve just illustrated Lifton’s Law, a paradox formulated in the 1980s by the American psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, according to which there’s an inverse relationship between the actual life-and-death importance of any aspect of contemporary history and the likelihood that it will receive any attention in our university curricula.2

But even if we’re too ill-informed or too diffident to have taken note of the fact, the Corporatist Revolution has happened. In the U.K., starting in 1979, it took the form (as Christopher Hitchens says) of “sado-monetarism”: Mrs Thatcher, the Iron Lady, set out to handbag the welfare state and make social democracy a distant memory. She succeeded.

The “Reagan Revolution” began in 1980 in the U.S. Despite all the talk about debt reduction, Reagan’s strategy (as his first budget director indiscreetly revealed in 1981), was to rack up deficits so huge that no future government would be able to undo Reaganite cuts to social spending. The idea was, effectively, to bankrupt any future other than the one intended by Reagan and his handlers.3

Having elected Brian Mulroney to power in 1984, Canadians found themselves being overhauled for entry into the Reaganite world of deregulated capitalism: with the FTA and then NAFTA we abandoned all but the flimsiest pretence of national control over natural resources, economic policy, and Canadian culture. In 1993, we threw out Mulroney’s heirs—only to put ourselves into the hands of Jean Chrétien, a more fervent admirer of Reagan and his works than even Mulroney had been. At that point we began to learn what it means in this era to be “open for business.”

(You don’t like massive cuts to medicare, the elimination of transfer payments in support of higher education, or the prospect of finishing your university degree tens of thousands of dollars in debt? Sorry, folks: that’s part of the package.)

But Canada had to wait until 1995, and the Ontario electorate’s approval of the “Common Sense Revolution,” to hear from a true philosopher of the new order. The moment came when John Snobelen, Mike Harris’s grade-eleven-drop-out minister of education, decided to strut his stuff in front of a gathering of ministry bureaucrats—and was vain enough to have his vapourings captured on videotape.

In good Reaganite fashion, Snobelen explained the need to “bankrupt the actions and activities that aren’t consistent with the future we’re committed to.” The initial phase of this process would involve “creating a useful crisis.” “Yeah,” he said, “we need to invent a crisis. And that’s not an act just of courage—there’s some skill involved.”4

Skilfully or not, the Harris government has applied this philosophy of invented crises and selective bankrupting to Ontario’s universities. Institutions that were already crumbling due to many years of underfunding and the recession-years cuts of the early 1990s were hit after 1995 with a massive withdrawal of funding. A fraction of the money that was withdrawn is now being restored in the form of capital spending programs, but these are targeted to areas like information technology, engineering, and the health sciences. (The pure sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences are evidently in line for the bankrupting prescribed by Dr. Snobelen.) Morever, the restored money is being made available only in cases where matching funding can be raised from outside sources, thus ensuring corporate control of a remodeled higher education infrastructure. As finance minister Ernie Eves put it, “The private sector … believes it’s best to have some input on the ground floor of the postsecondary education system.”5

The Harris government is well aware that Ontario’s deliberately weakened universities are now facing a demographic double-whammy. In 2003, thanks to the elimination of Grade 13, the annual cohort of applicants to Ontario universities will be doubled in size. And in the two following years, due to what demographers term “the baby-boom echo,” the annual cohorts will increase by about fifteen per cent.

The government’s response? Thousands of positions for “university” students are being prepared at Ontario’s community colleges, and legislation has been passed to allow private degree-granting institutions to establish themselves in Ontario. “Digital diploma mills,” as historian David Noble calls them, already exist in the U.S. These low-overhead distance-education operations employ ill-paid faculty on revolving-door contracts to provide large numbers of students with job-market training in a manner that maximizes the institution’s profits.6

Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? But they must be needed here, since our publicly-funded universities just can’t seem to do the job. And once they’ve set up shop in Ontario, the diploma mills will most likely be eligible for public funding on the same basis as public universities. (Check the fine print of NAFTA.)

But what can we say about the corporatist form into which our existing universities have morphed during the past two decades?

First and most obviously, the corporate university is controlled by corporate interests, rather than by representatives of any larger public interest. I’m not thinking so much about who controls the Board of Governors, though that’s important enough, as about the fact that the research agendas of many academic units are under direct corporate control—with obvious implications for the orientation of their teaching.

I’ve pointed to the Ontario government’s decision to let corporate interests in “on the ground floor.” The same attitude is evident in the Chrétien federal government. After withdrawing money from the three Councils responsible for the public funding of research in medicine, the natural sciences and engineering, and the humanities and social sciences, the government poured resources into a new Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which provides funding only to researchers who can organize “matching funds” from private sources.

Guess how much corporate funding is available to researchers who want to do work critical of genetically modified foods. Guess what happens to the academic careers of scientists who can’t secure research funding.

In other respects as well, the corporate university will be responsive to the selfish desires of a social elite rather to the larger interests of society as a whole. Why should this come as a surprise? According to the Toronto Star’s headline story of March 16, 2001, three per cent of Ontario’s families control 27 per cent of the total wealth; and the richest twenty per cent of Canadians saw their wealth increase by 39 per cent from 1984 to 1999, while the poorest forty per cent made no advance or became poorer.7 Wouldn’t it be more surprising if a social elite that has bent the tax regime so far to its advantage were to neglect twisting the higher education system in the same direction?8

High tuition fees? That might be a matter for concern if we thought the institution retained any function of ensuring social mobility. The children of the rich can manage high tuition fees. Don’t worry about the others: if student loan debt has risen by six hundred per cent since 1984,9 won’t those who carry it be all the more likely to behave like good selfish free-market individualists when they graduate with thirty or forty thousand dollars of debt, and with a hot charge of resentment against the society that laid this on them?

As for the notion that a university might exist to provide our society as a whole with a variety of institutionalized forms of critical self-understanding—I’m sorry, that one’s going a bit blurry on me. Rerum Cognoscere Causas: is that some kind of a tip on what to do with my ten-cent NASDAQ stocks, or what?

Perhaps we need a Latin motto for graduating students, and not just for the universities that (thanks to the invented crises of Snobelen & Co.) have become dependent on ever more burdensome tuition fees.

Here's one for a start: Sperare Videor Aes Alienum Exsolvere. It means: “I flatter myself with the hope of paying my debts.”




1  There was an odd factual error in my text as first published: I identified Rerum Cognoscere Causas as “the motto of the university where I did my graduate studies in the late 1970s.” A strange mistake, given that by 2001, when this piece was written, I had taught for more than a decade at the University of Guelph. The motto of the University of Sussex, where I did my doctoral studies, is actually “Be still and know,” which is lifted from Psalm 46. I can guess why I might have forgotten that fact. During my time at Sussex, the university's motto may have seemed a faint exhortation addressed to recalcitrant students whose learning processes involved activist praxis as well as quiet reading: for at least two years the undergraduate student union was led by members of the Situationist International, who in support of what they understood as just causes and a project of understanding the causes of things recurrently occupied the central administrative building, Sussex House. I've altered this paragraph to correct the error.

2  See Gillian Thomas, “Lifton's Law and the Teaching of Literature,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael Keefer, special double issue of Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (1986): 14-21.

3  See Budget Director David Stockman's interview with William Greider in the Atlantic Monthly (November 1981).

4  See Richard Brennan, “Minister plotted ‘to invent a crisis’,” Toronto Star (13 September 1995): A3; Lisa Wright, “Apologize for remarks Harris tells Snobelen,” Toronto Star (14 September 1995): A3; Thomas Walkom, “Snobelen scales windy heights of bafflegab,” Toronto Star (14 September 1995): A25; and “Harris Mainly Mum on Plans for Post-Secondary Education in Ontario,” CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin (November 1995): 6.

5  Quoted by John Ibbitson, “Universities and colleges get big boost from Ontario,” Globe and Mail (23 February 2000): A1, A7.

6  See David Noble, “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education,” Toronto: distributed by OCUFA, October 1997; and “Digital Diploma Mills, Part II: The Coming Battle Over Online Instruction,” Toronto: distributed by OCUFA, March 1998. For some historical context, see Janice Newson and Howard Buchbinder, The University Means Business (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1988); and Neil Tudiver, Universities for Sale: Resisting Corporate Control over Canadian Higher Education (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999). Parallel developments in the U.S. have been analyzed by Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

7  Elaine Carey, “Rich, poor are even wider apart,” Toronto Star (16 March 2001): A1, A10. Carey observed that in Ontario, the richest 3.1 percent of Ontario families control 27 percent of the province's wealth, while in Alberta and B.C. a similar proportion—3.2 and 3.3 percent respectively—control 36 percent of the wealth in those provinces.

8  Relevant data from the U.S. is provided by Hendrick Hertzberg, “Generous George,” The New Yorker (12 March 2001). “The Administration has dismissed, but has not been able to refute, independent analyses showing that forty per cent of the benefits of the Bush tax cut will accrue to the richest one per cent of taxpayers; that the bottom eighty per cent will get less than a third of the benefits and the bottom twenty per cent less than one per cent; that all the benefits of the proposed abolition of the estate tax will go to the heirs of the richest two per cent; and that the richest six per cent of that two per cent will rake in half the estate-tax pot. The shape of the Bush tax program represents a seismic shift in the overall tax burden toward the bottom of the economic scale. And its size represents a massive diversion of actual and potential resources away from public activities that benefit the whole of society—activities like education, public health, and environmental protection, the very ones Bush endorsed at the outset of his speech—and toward the single purpose of augmenting the net incomes of the comfortable” (pp. 41-42). From 1992 to 1998, moreover, “the average after-tax income of the richest one percent rose from about four hundred thousand dollars to just under six hundred thousand, and from 12.2 per cent of the national net income to 15.7 per cent. (Disparities of wealth, as opposed to income, are, of course, much higher.) Really, now—how urgently do these good people require a new subsidy from the other ninety-nine per cent?” (p. 42). The richest one percent versus the remaining 99 percent: this opposition would resurface a decade later in the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

9  Carey, “Rich, poor are even wider apart.” In remarking that Canadian student loan debt was six times as high by 1999 as it had been in 1984, Carey highlighted the story of a Ryerson student who, despite having worked twenty hours per week as a waiter in a campus bar, was going to graduate in 2001 with a debt of $40,000 in student loans.   

The Chomsky Nomination: A Response

In late 1998, my colleague Ajay Heble and I nominated Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT for an honorary doctorate at the University of Guelph, an honour which Chomsky graciously agreed to accept. During his visit to Guelph in February 1999, Professor Chomsky showed his characteristic generosity: in addition to his address at the commencement ceremony, he found time in a tight schedule for what amounted to a seminar with student journalists, and spoke to an overflow crowd at Chalmers Street United Church—where the Chomsky lecture was appropriately introduced by Guillermo Verdecchia, co-author of the hit play The Noam Chomsky Lectures. The church was packed, as were two large meeting rooms linked to the main event by video feeds. As is his habit, Professor Chomsky refused any honorarium; with his agreement, the proceeds from ticket sales were donated to organizations working in solidarity with the people of East Timor and Haiti.

On December 1, 1998, after the University of Guelph had released the news that Professor Chomsky would shortly be visiting our campus to receive an honorary degree, the university's student newspaper, The Ontarion, printed an interview with Professor Heble and myself about this approaching event. Then on February 2, 1999 one of the newspaper's editors published an editorial which clumsily accused us of having effectively misled the University's Senate in our nomination of Chomsky. The following response appeared in the next issue of The Ontarion, on February 9, 1999.


The Editor, 
The Ontarion, 
Room 264, University Centre, 
Fax: 824-7838. February 4, 1999.


To the Editor:

The remarks directed against me and my colleague Professor Ajay Heble by Jayson McDonald in his editorial of February 2nd (“An honourary [sic] criticism”) contain an interesting mixture of malice and misinformation.

This editorial claims that, having nominated Professor Noam Chomsky for an honorary doctorate at this university, Dr. Heble and I subsequently revealed political motivations for the nomination which we had concealed from the University's Senate. Referring to a news item that appeared in the December 1st issue of The Ontarion, McDonald writes that

Heble and Keefer spent a full one-third of that article describing their political “rationale” for nominating Chomsky when indeed it had little if any mention in their actual nomination letter or the final selection made by the U of G senate.

As McDonald himself notes, the article in question was written, not by us, but by an Ontarion journalist. It is a novelty, I believe, for people who have been interviewed by a newspaper to find themselves reproached by one of the editors of that same journal for the arrangement and emphasis of the resulting story.

In addition to McDonald's unpleasant insinuation of bad faith, he is also making a claim, in the sentence I have quoted, about the substance of our nomination. That claim is false.

Our letter of nomination, after signalling the unparalleled impact of Professor Chomsky's work in linguistics over more than four decades, and after indicating his influence on a wide range of cultural theorists, went on to propose that this great thinker deserves our respectful attention for other reasons as well. “In addition to being a scholar of worldwide reputation,” we wrote,

he has also repeatedly been described as the exemplary public intellectual and oppositional thinker of our era. Since the mid-1960s, when he became an outspoken critic of the American wars in south-east Asia, Noam Chomsky has devoted his scholarly energies, his analytical lucidity, and his powers of ethical discrimination to a long series of searching analyses of military aggression, human rights abuses, political and economic injustices, and the systems of misinformation and propaganda which help to make them possible.

One of two things becomes painfully clear: either Mr. McDonald had not bothered to read the letter of nomination and was misleadingly making it seem that he had, or else he had indeed read it and was offering a misleading impression of its substance. But he must have read the text, since he knows that it contains no reference either to Mr. George Walker Bush or to the University of Toronto.

It would of course be a very strange thing if it did. But I do not think, on the other hand, that there was anything very astonishing in the fact that the University of Toronto's presentation of an honorary doctorate to ex-President Bush a year ago came up during Professor Heble's and my interviews with The Ontarion. That award had been vigorously opposed by many faculty members of the University of Toronto, and had entered the public record as a matter of controversy. As is well known, throughout Mr. Bush's career as director of the CIA, Vice-President and President, the most trenchant and persistent critic of the many violations of international law and of human rights over which he presided was none other than Noam Chomsky. And as I have indicated, our nomination of Professor Chomsky foregrounded his tireless efforts to promote justice no less than it did the exemplary intellectual rigour of his work as a linguist.

But perhaps we ought to raise our eyes from this petty dispute to the rather more important fact that during the coming days our campus will be honoured by the presence of one of the greatest scholars and public intellectuals of our time. Can we hope that The Ontarion may yet find some more adequate means than Mr. McDonald's editorial of responding to this event?

Michael Keefer

Associate Professor
School of Literatures and Performance Studies in English

Hot Button Academic Politics

First published in the Toronto Star (24 September 1996). On the same day I received an email message from Professor Emberley: “Thank you for your mud-slinging, ideological squib on my book in the Toronto Star. You are obviously so mesmerized by the Zeitgeist that you cannot even see what's at stake in the university debate. Where there could have been an opportunity for us to have an interesting discussion, you evidently have dismissed me as 'intensely conservative' and 'ignorant.' Well, I suppose that's why the public thinks so poorly of academe—warring over turf, while ignoring the true needs of the students. I was utterly appalled.”


Review of Peter C. Emberley, Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities (Toronto: Penguin, 1996)


It might seem hard to imagine a better guide to the embattled terrain of Canadian higher education than Peter C. Emberley, a product of three distinguished institutions of higher learning, the director of Carleton University's new College of the Humanities, and author now of three books on what he calls “hot button” issues affecting Canadian universities.

Emberley's diagnosis in Zero Tolerance is direct and simple. Canadian higher education has been politicized by the corporate right and the “cultural left,” and “the plainly evident collapse of the university” is the result of “turf wars” and “a fierce jockeying for power and control” between groups that neither know nor love the university, but “are pursuing their own political agendas.”

This diagnosis is elaborated in nine wide-ranging and often exhaustively researched chapters. A tenth and final chapter restates Emberley's positions on key issues including tenure, public accountability, the relation between teaching and research, tuition fees, inclusivity, core curricula and academic freedom.

Zero Tolerance is valuable for the information it brings together on many of the issues currently under debate in and around Canada's universities and colleges. However, Emberley's assessments of the material he has assembled are often oddly inconsistent—most commonly at points where his posture of judicious neutrality breaks down in the face of a desire to advance his own intensely conservative cultural politics.

Thus Emberley correctly identifies recent steep increases in tuition fees, along with income-contingent loan repayment schemes, as a privatizing of public debt, and as a transfer of that debt from the baby-boomers who benefited from generous social and educational policies to a younger generation which is being denied the benefit of inexpensive access to higher education. However, he prefers to interpret these developments as “a form of moral education” which will teach this generation of students that “there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.” (Clichés of this sort, notably that weary equation of university study with “an odyssey,” resound through the book.)

Emberley's pose as a defender of the culture of humane scholarship is more directly self-contradictory. He denounces terms like “discourse,” “marginalization,” and “inclusivity” as “pseudo-intellectual jargon.” He heaps scorn on those who protest against cuts of 25 percent in university library acquisitions, since “about that proportion of library holdings is 'research' that has done little more than pad faculty résumés.” (One wonders, in passing, what proportion of his own writings Emberley would dismiss as “padding.”) He is no less contemptuous of faculty who feel threatened by “the bogeyman of the corporate world.” In his view, “It is only because teaching and research have been gutted of most of their meaning that the issues of the relevance of what faculty do have become so volatile.”

After this, Emberley's suggestion that “the major culprit” in his story is “the cultural left's identity politics” comes as no surprise. Some readers may accept his definition of postmodernism as “an intellectual tool currently being used in various social sectors to rewrite history and to re-engineer the evident experiences of living.” Many, however, will be shocked to find that his prime example of a “postmodern” rewriting of history is the United Church's recent apology to First Nations people for the suffering it inflicted on them through such “Eurocentric” projects as residential schools.

Emberley's loathing for those tendencies in contemporary scholarship that he lumps together as “postmodern” is exceeded only by his ignorance of recent work even in fields so directly relevant to this book as social history, cultural theory, and the sociology of education. (Thus, for example, Paul de Man's name heads a list of French academics “who helped inspire the May 1968 Paris student revolts”—though de Man made his academic career in the United States, published his first book only in 1971, and never had a significant following in France.)

None of these objections would count if this book projected a compelling vision of what liberal education is or ought to be. But here Emberley offers little beyond gush about the aspirations of young people and vague remarks about core curricula. Perhaps he is holding his best thoughts back for the benefit of his students and colleagues at Carleton.