The din and fury over the CBC’s story on BDS

There are many disadvantages to blogging on current events in my spare time. One of the biggest is that news has an unfortunate tendency to break while I’m at busy.

When I read the CBC’s explosive conversation-starter of an article about the HarperCons’ apparent willingness to use hate crime laws against proponents of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) campaign over a hurried pre-work breakfast this morning, I knew that (a) it was something I really wanted to post about, and (b) by the time my shift was over so many people would have weighed in that I probably wouldn’t have anything new to add.

Now here it is, several hours later, and this story has certainly made the rounds online.

Everybody from Warren Kinsella to Glenn Greenwald has weighed in on the controversy, with the story about the story becoming an increasingly important metanarratival (metanarrativistic?) part of the narrative.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

In January, foreign affairs minister John Baird signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israeli government which labelled the BDS movement “the new face of anti-Semitism”.

(The BDS movement aims to end the illegal and reprehensible Israeli occupation of Palestine. (You can read about the movement in detail on its website.))

Public Security Minister Steven Blaney doubled down on this stance later that week in a speech to the UN, saying that Canada would take a zero-tolerance approach to advocates of BDS.

This naturally caused some consternation among BDS proponents, such as the United Church of Canada and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Given the HarperCons’ habit of using the CRA to aggressively audit charities which it disagrees with (memorably telling Oxfam that while alleviating poverty was fair grounds for charity work, preventing poverty was definitely not), doubtless many were worried about this tactic being used on them.

The CBC looked into the story, badgering Blaney’s spokesperson over a series of days until they got a straight answer.

What they heard was unsettling.

In describing how the Ministry of Public Security intended to enforce its zero-tolerance policy, Blaney aide Josee Sirois made numerous references to hate crime legislation – the implication being that those who support BDS are liable to criminal prosecution.

“I can tell you that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of laws against hate crime anywhere in the world,” wrote Sirois.

She highlighted what she termed “hate propaganda” provisions in the Criminal Code criminalizing the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group, and further noted that “identifiable group” now includes any section of the public distinguished by “among other characteristics, religion or national or ethnic origin.”

She also referred to Criminal Code provisions requiring that a judge consider hate, bias or prejudice when sentencing an offender.

“We will not allow hate crimes to undermine our way of life, which is based on diversity and inclusion,” she concluded.

The Code was recently amended to add “national origin” to the list of characteristics of identifiable groups against which Canadians can be criminally hateful. That would seem to open the door to its being used against political opponents of a particular state or nation.

(I wonder, though, why the HarperCons haven’t considered using that section of the law against themselves for their obviously destructive animus against Iran?)

All of this led me to thinking, yet again, about the massive flaw at the heart of concepts like “hate crimes” and “hate speech” and that’s what I wanted to talk about, before I read Glenn’s post in the Intercept.

I’ve been reading Greenwald’s work since his Salon days, and while we’re not always on the same page, I have a lot of respect for the guy – and his position on hate crimes is one that I’m behind 100%. I’ll let Glenzilla explain:

As I’ve argued many times — most comprehensively here — all applications of hate speech laws are inherently tyrannical, dangerous and wrong, and it’s truly mystifying (and scary) that people convince themselves that their judgment is so unerring and their beliefs so sacrosanct that it should be illegal to question or dissent from them. But independent of that, what we see here again is the utter foolishness of endorsing such laws on pragmatic grounds: they will inevitably be used against not just the ideas you hate but the ones you like, and when that happens, if you cheered when such laws were used to suppress the ideas you hate, then you will have no valid ground to object.

“Hate speech” is justified by invoking laudable ideals – protecting the weak, the marginalized, and the oppressed from the invocation of prejudiced vitriol. But it relies on allowing government an incredibly dangerous power – the power to make certain things unspeakable, legally speaking.

Most people are OK with this when the things which can’t be said are hideously racist and hateful. The classic example is Holocaust denial (for which you can be imprisoned in several European nations). Nobody likes a Holocaust denier. Stripping them of their free speech rights causes little to no outcry.

But the inherent tension within the concept is revealed when more and more groups try to add themselves to the list of “identifiable groups” who can be targets of hate speech.

Like the police.

Violence against police officers that is motivated by anti-police bias should be prosecuted as a hate crime, the nation’s largest police union is arguing in a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders this week.

“Right now, it’s a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Or the current case, where opposition to Israel is assumed prima facie to be evidence of hate towards Jews.

Never mind the widespread and well-founded outrage towards the Israeli government’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, or the Israeli military’s reprehensible conduct during its last invasion of what’s been called “the world’s largest open-air prison”, actions which may have constituted war crimes. Opponents of the State of Israel’s policies can only be violent nasty anti-Semites.

(Including, presumably, groups like Jews for Justice in Palestine or the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.)

Allowing the government to prohibit the expression of certain views was never going to end well – it leads inevitably towards the prohibition of opinions which the government of the day finds threatening.

Critics like Kinsella weighed in, charging that the CBC’s article is way overblown. Kinsella was the source for David Frum’s pooh-poohing of the story on Twitter, which got Greenwald so riled up that he somehow got his hands on the correspondence between the CBC and Sirois, which seems to confirm the CBC’s carefully worded article. (Good going Glenn btw!)

Now, it’s true nobody has been charged yet, and it’s likely true that such a charge wouldn’t stand up in court. But the primary effect of public statements like Baird and Blaney have made is to create fear within the activist community. Time and energy that could be spent on organizing is instead spent on worrying and ass-covering and soul-searching and playing who’s-the-undercover-cop.

With the implementation of Bill C-51, organizers now also have to worry about their personal information being shared with seventeen different law enforcement and intelligence agencies across Canada, as well as foreign intelligence agencies.

There’s also the spectre of terrorism laws being invoked against anybody who encourages breaking the blockade on Gaza.

Or, as I reported yesterday, people travelling to Gaza or the West Bank to do relief work may have their passports revoked, with their only appeal process being to a secret court which allow secret evidence.

Really, there’s nothing too new in this story; it’s merely the next logical step in the repression of activism in Canada. A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that the government has been threatening various activist groups with criminalization for a very long time. RCMP and/or CSIS surveillance of activists also has a long and sordid history.

It’s the invocation of hate speech laws which gives this particular story its twist, as well as the brazenness of the government in targeting such a mainstream movement.

Perhaps, as some have optimistically suggested, this speaks to the effectiveness of the BDS campaign, and the increasing fearfulness of the Canadian and Israeli governments about the impact it is having.

Or perhaps it has more to do with the increasing influence Israel is having in Canadian politics. After all, as the CBC notes, both the Liberals and the NDP are also on record as being opposed to BDS. And there was that unfortunate incident where the NDP disqualified a candidate for his views on the blockade of Gaza, an episode which led to increased scrutiny of the NDP’s policy on Israel.

It turns out that opposing Israel’s policies is much like opposing continued tar sands extraction – it’s a relatively common position which has no mainstream champion in Canada’s Parliament.

Which is likely why the HarperCons feel pretty safe about threatening proponents of BDS. Other than online outrage, they aren’t likely to face any serious challenges over the policy.



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You write: “Most people are OK with this when the things which can’t be said are hideously racist and hateful. The classic example is Holocaust denial (for which you can be imprisoned in several European nations). Nobody likes a Holocaust denier. Stripping them of their free speech rights causes little to no outcry.”

This statement is completely outrageous. Revising the victors cartoon version of World War II is a crime in your opinion? Facts are ‘hateful’ and truth is ‘racist’? How Orwellian!

Holocaust revisionism is a perfectly reasonable area of historical inquiry, and only totalitarian zealots would suggest it should be criminalized.

    Of all the responses to get to this article, this one I was not expecting.
    What I’m saying is that hate speech legislation initially goes after easy targets, people whose opinions are widely despised – Holocaust deniers being a prime example.
    However, I didn’t say that this was OK. It’s not.
    A major point of the post is that hate speech laws are bad laws, and that speech shouldn’t be criminalized, because it inevitably leads to further and further encroachments on the range of acceptable opinion.
    Personally, I think that denial of the Holocaust is at best misguided, and more often helps lend a veneer of semi-legitimate historical pomposity to neo-Nazi movements. But I also think it’s reprehensible that there are people in jail for the “crime” of believing the Holocaust never happened.
    Speech is either free, or it isn’t. Fencing off areas where free expression isn’t permitted is just plain bad policy. If we want free speech, we have to put up with speech which is vile, and racist, and sexist, and hateful – that’s the cost of free speech.

      OK, good to know you at least don’t support jailing revisionists.

      What you call “Holocaust deniers” are only “widely reviled” because the Zionist-dominated media has poisoned people against it. Just as they have poisoned people’s minds against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general.

      I think if you studied the subject a little further you’d be surprised how strong the revisionists’ arguments are. “Holocaust denier” is a straw man label that bears no resemblance to revisionist viewpoints. Nothing that can be proven is “denied.” Exaggerations and scientific impossibilities are what revisionists challenge. No responsible revisionist argues that “no Jews” were harmed by the Third Reich’s policies, which the “denier” label implies.

      Have a listen to my recent interview with an expert on this subject. By no means did we cover all the bases on this huge topic, but we brought out some fundamentals which undermine the official narrative.

        OK man here’s the deal:
        Just because I respect the right of Holocaust deniers to express their opinions doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay for hosting their opinions. This is my website, and I say no promotion of Holocaust denial in the comments, and that’s not an abridgement of your free speech rights. So I’m not gonna ask you twice – please, do not post in this space again with any material or links promoting Holocaust denial. You do it again and I will block you.
        (The label Holocaust denier is strictly speaking very accurate, btw. Holocaust denial obviously doesn’t seek to prove that no Jews were harmed by the Nazis, because literally nobody would believe that; they seek to prove that there was no deliberate and systematic program to exterminate Jews, Roma, queer folk, etc. That’s what the Holocaust was, and arguing it didn’t happen is denying it.)
        Just to be perfectly clear, to you and to anybody else who may be reading this: I respect the right of people to hold noxious and hateful opinions, and I don’t believe they should have to answer to any authority for holding or expressing these views, but I will not tolerate the spreading of these hateful and hurtful views in the comments of this blog.

So I am putting you in the elect of free speech absolutists. Well said. (Except for the pro-BDS stuff but, have fun.)

The political elites in Canada and throughout the world want to control speech. To do that they have invented a category called hate speech. If you say something which they do not like they call it hate speech and try to take away your freedom to speak. Resist and you’ll be called a Nazi or an anti-Semite or a fundamentalist Christian or an Islamophobe.

You have chosen a brave path.

Great analysis, particularly this:

“It turns out that opposing Israel’s policies is much like opposing continued tar sands extraction – it’s a relatively common position which has no mainstream champion in Canada’s Parliament.”

This is exactly the sort of simple truth that is rarely pointed out by our many large news organizations.

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