The white, male, affluent, settler-culture anglophone Ryerson journalism professor John Miller makes as good an argument as anyone against Mark Steyn's reporting. In fact, most of those self-same points have already appeared in the letters section of Maclean's, which are usually among the most-read pages in any magazine.
Certainly, they're mainstream arguments. They must be if Miller could find them. He pulls material from all kinds of attacks on Steyn's work from important publications all over the world, which, through the beauty of the Internet, is available to everyone. In other words, to get all academic, there is vigorous social discourse on the issues that Steyn writes on. So why ban Steyn from writing on what he feels are the dangers of Islamicism?
Miller argues Steyn's arguments have been shot down. They may or may not. I have neither the time nor the inclination to play in that park. All that's important is that all sides are being heard. Whatever Steyn's inaccuracies, they are at least mirrored by hard-core Islamicists like the liars who claim 9-11 was an inside job and by one of the complainants who says all adult Jews are legitimate targets for killers.
Here's my take. Discourse must be wide open in society. We get truth from healthy debate and criticism. Our institutions and society improve when they are probed and challenged. Ideas should be brought forward and examined with as much freedom as possible. Debate is a good thing, not a bad thing.
The most accurate assessment of the situation comes from Miller's own work:
A year ago writer Johann Hari reviewed Steyn’s book, America Alone, from which the Maclean’s excerpt was taken. Writing in The Independent newspaper on June 2, 2008, he said: “It is a piece of bigotry, based on garbled statistics and ugly prejudices. But free speech includes the right to make claims that are wrong, stupid or abhorrent – or it is no freedom at all. The way to rebut Mark Steyn is through argument. His case is weak; it will never win in an open row. Expose the facts. Rebut his figures. Laugh at his ignorance. The truth is strong; trust it.”
But if the complainants, who Miller supports, have their way, Steyn's work -- the magazine article, and, by extension, the book from which it is excerpted -- will be banned. That means the best-seller will be pulled off the shelves of book stores and removed from libraries. That is an automatic penalty imposed by Human Rights Commissions upon conviction. You can't convict someone of spreading hate, then allow them to keep doing it. The whole point of the Human Rights Commission process is to make people stop doing bad things.
As well, Steyn and the magazine would effectively be on some sort of probation, with the threat of contempt of the Human Rights Commission if they printed something that offended the complainants. Effectively, on issues dealing with issues involving Muslims, Elmarsy and al Habib, the complainants, would be Maclean's censors, a sort of two-man focus group backed by the BC Human Rights Commission.
Miller believes Steyn's ideas are not publishable in Canada. He argues that errors in Steyn's piece somehow make the article illegal. He fails to see Steyn is one voice in a huge debate. The article must be seen as part of a system of discourse in Canada that has as its constituent parts Maclean's, The Walrus, THIS Magazine, Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic, Penthouse, the CBC, CTV, Global, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, dozens of daily newspapers and thousands of weeklies, the Internet, including Miller's blog... and so much more. Yet, says Miller, Steyn's work is so toxic, so evil, that it must be rooted out.
What Miller wants is the marketplace of ideas to be edited to fit into his and Mo Elmarsy's world view. Some "good" writers and articles will be allowed. Some will not.
The big dispute anytime we have had official censorship is: what are the rules and who enforces them? In wartime, rules of censorship are, in theory, tailored to make the media part of the war effort. So, if Human Rights Commissions are to act as censors -- and Miller doesn't even begin to address that concept -- then what are the rules? Who decides? Should publications submit their articles to Human Rights Commissions for some type of pre-censorship, or are journalists to be prosecuted post-facto in shopped jurisdictions under rules and "laws" that did not seem to exist at time of publication?
Are the rules for reporting the same as the rules for opinion pieces? If so, or if not, who says? Is error grounds for punishment? Who says? Let me see the rules. Or are they being made up to fit an ideological situation?
Who has these "human rights"? I'm human. I find Miller's argument offensive. Someone please send me a form.
Miller gives no reason whatever why a Human Rights Commission -- or three -- should be the gatekeeper of what's debated in this country and what isn't. In his world view, Human Rights Commissions would take the place of medieval kings deciding what can be published and what cannot. Freedom of speech would exist as long as the speakers agreed with the opinions of power, with those of the state, which creates and mandates Human Rights Commissions. Right now, the state appears to favor multiculturalism. Next week, who knows? We have not arrived at the promised land. We are not past the end of history.
The state could, by Miller's logic, just as easily mandate commissions to examine the press for other failings. Maybe the state should like to bring in wartime censorship. It has the power to. We are at war, after all, in Afghanistan, and we don't seem to be winning. Maybe we'd be doing better if the "defeatist" elements of the press were silenced.
That is the major hole in Miller's argument. And it's a fatal wound.
The Canadian Association of Journalists and the BC Civil Liberties Uniom have taken the same stand in their submission to the Human Rights Commission. Here's their brief.
Seems Miller does not even believe in free expression for his own students. He banned second-year and fourth-year print journalism students from writing for the independent college paper. They were not happy.
(Here's an online description of that controversy, for whatever it's worth. I still enjoyed Miller's book on the decline of Canadian papers. I just wonder if his dtestation of Conrad Black has spilled over into disdain for one of Black's proteges. )