12 August 2008

Howard Rotberg's affair

The story of Howard Rotberg's unfortunate encounter with two or three pro-Palestinian provocateurs, followed by boycott of his book The Second Catastrophe
by the biggest Canadian bookstore chain Chapters Indigo, was eerily reminiscent of an episode in life of a professor, the protagonist of The Human Stain by Philip Roth, probably one of the greatest books written in US in the last century. For people who haven't read the book yet (but should): the professor had a misfortune to use the word "spook" in his lecture. It so happens that quite a lot of years before this imaginary lecture took place, the word "spook" was used to indicate African Americans. And one of the students, needless to say - an African American with a grudge against our professor (Jewish to boot - well, he appears to hide his real origins, which are African-American, but it's too much of a story for a post) causes his academic demise by accusing him as a racist.

To make it even more eerie, The Second Catastrophe describes a similar misfortune caused by a careless expression in it's protagonist's lecture. Which doesn't matter a lot, since the real life mishap that changed Rotberg's life is even weirder.

A young man came in and sat in the second row. He picked up a copy of my book from the table, took a perfunctory look at it, and started interrupting me.

“You think all Muslims are terrorists,” he asserted.

“I do not,” I replied, as categorically as possible.

“Well, that’s what your book says,” he retorted.
And it gets better:
“He has no right to lecture if he is going to say things in support of Israel,” said the Palestinian.
It appears that some Canadian Palestinians have an interesting point of view on freedom of speech. And how is this for a coda?
Then the Iraqi started in. Again someone pleaded with him to be quiet so I could lecture. Then came the words that still ring in my ears: “He’s a fucking Jew.”
Well, and who gets punished for all this? Believe it or not, it's the "fucking Jew" himself. First of all, Chapters Indigo hastily issued a press release, where they blamed both sides of the incident:
Indigo spokesperson Sorya Gaulin said that while an author who'll draw a big crowd warrants security guards, "You wouldn't expect this behaviour at a discussion of a novel. The author's behaviour was inappropriate — we were seeing (that) on both sides."
But this was only an opening shot by Chapters Indigo. The next one was to remove the book in question from their shelves. Believe it or not, it was done indeed - I am quite far from Canada, so I am using Chapters Indigo site that says that the book is unavailable. Someone else will have to re-check the stores, if that someone disbelieves the author's word.

The punitive steps mentioned above were executed in spite of the easily available evidence by witnesses that there was nothing racist in Rotberg's lecture and subsequent behavior, even after he has been provoked. See this affidavit. The Chapters representative that issued the press release had the affidavit available in time to prevent its hasty wording. But no, in their zeal to clean themselves of any possible accusation, they have preferred to blame both sides.

Even assuming, for the sake of the argument only, that Howard Rotberg (an experienced lawyer who definitely knows very well the high price of hot-headed speech) has indeed uttered something damaging in the heat of the altercation with the provocateurs - how could this act have caused the withdrawal of the book from the Chapter Indigo stores?

Here I have come upon another interesting detail. I am told that the owners of this esteemed book vendor are Jewish. No, I wasn't expecting a preferential treatment of Howard Rotberg by Chapter Indigo. Still, the last thing I would expect of Jewish owners was their shabby treatment of their fellow Jew. Especially such an easy acceptance of the trumped up charges of racism.

But there is another angle I have (almost inadvertently, believe it or not) discovered. The esteemed book vendor, so sensitive to a merest whiff of politically incorrect behavior, doesn't see anything fishy (smell-wise) in displaying a book by Hitler (yes, the Adolf), an exotic edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the infamous Holocaust Industry by Finkelstein. Yeah... but of course, these books don't clash with the new wave of "progressive thinking" as understood by some people in Canada.

All in all, a classic case of the racism card being played to its utmost by dirty manipulators. And not very clever manipulators, as it becomes clear from this funny chapter in the whole sad story. Still, they have succeeded (meanwhile) in suppressing one voice that wasn't toeing the "progressive" line.

I hope that "meanwhile" is going to end soon. Howard Rotberg is suing Chapters for financial losses caused by Chapters’ actions. He has chosen to bring it in Small Claims Court (maximum jurisdiction is $10,000) to simplify the matter and show it is not about money but the principle of what was done. Chapters should pay, albeit symbolically, for not protecting the right of Mr Rotberg to free speech, for unjustly accusing him in racism and for their bureaucratic zeal in persecuting Mr Rotberg by withdrawing his book from the shelves.

I hope some heads in the Chapters' empire will roll* and deservedly so. I don't tend to ascribe to malice what could be explained by stupidity. But stupidity needs to be punished as well.

Meanwhile you all can vote for Howard Rotberg by ordering his book here. And by downloading and reading his new book, which includes the story briefly touched upon in this post.

More info here and here and here. An interview with Rotberg here. And follow the (hopefully good) news on Howard Rotberg's new blog.

(*) Potential beheaders accidentally reading this sentence asked not to get overexcited. It is a figger of speech.

Cross-posted on Yourish.com.