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Mathew Giagnorio: Why an Ontario chief librarian was fired for her thought crimes

Commentary

What is the purpose of a public library? It is a local gateway to the world and all the knowledge that it contains. It is a sanctuary of the written word and a cornerstone of civic life and the community it serves. It provides a foundation for lifelong learning, curiosity, and independent critical decision-making, along with the personal, social, and cultural development of individuals and social groups. 

Participation in and the development of a robust democracy in a diverse and open liberal society is contingent on unrestricted access to education and knowledge, thought, culture, and information. In engaging with this content, we must have the intellectual freedom to refute, question, and debate topics. 

The role of the librarian is a steward and protector of this public space. They must allow for equal access to the knowledge it houses. That knowledge should be eclectic, inspiring, insightful, and provocative.

The wonderful thing about a library is that if you don’t like a particular book, you are not obligated to read it. There are plenty of books to choose from. 

This approach to free thought was not the case in the shameful dismissal of Cathy Simpson, chief librarian, and CEO of Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. The treatment she endured demonstrates a complete disregard for viewpoint diversity demanded in the forum of the public library. 

Simpson wrote a column entitled “Censorship and what we are allowed to read: public libraries should be home to many viewpoints, not just progressive ones” for a local newspaper. It was published, ironically, on February 22nd  during the “Freedom to Read Week,” an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which they are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also happened during the Toronto Public Library’s intellectual freedom series.

It was a column I would have written myself, and I commend her for doing so. In it, she addresses genuine concerns about hidden censorship in libraries that amounts to a selective defence of books and authors based on the valour of victimhood. She also raised the narrowing of book choices which now dare not diverge from what is now deemed absolute truth. If they are questioned, the questioner faces strong political forces that will be out to get them. “Viewpoints that don’t conform to progressive agendas are rarely represented in library collections and anyone who challenges this is labelled a bigot,” she wrote. “We ask our colleagues to ensure ‘Freedom to Read Week’ does not become ‘Freedom to Read What We Decide You Should Read Week.’”

Shortly after Simpson’s article came out, Matthew French, a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, wrote a response letter that served anything but an intelligent rebuttal to the views presented. It reads largely like a hit piece designed to cast Mrs. Simpson as persona non grata and damage her emotionally and financially, leaving her reputation in shambles. He implies she’d be open to the discrimination of gay people and denying the Holocaust. 

What I find most amusing is that instead of responding to Simpson’s article and presenting arguments, he instead chose to smear her. He actually proved her points by claiming in fact that her balanced views proposing library neutrality and the freedom to read, and her association with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), are horrid “far-right” American talking points.

Now, when you think of far-right folks, do you think about people like Shadi Hamid, a respected professor of Islamic studies and Washington Post columnist? How about respected New York University psychologist and author  Jonathan Haidt? What about Daryl Davis who is a musician, author, actor, and lecturer noted for “having interviewed hundreds of KKK members and other white supremacists and influencing many of them to renounce their racist ideology”? Davis is a Black man, by the way. 

Or wait, maybe you think of someone like Andrew Sullivan. He’s a writer, blogger, and author whose 1989 landmark essay “Here Comes The Groom,” made the first real case to conservatives for gay marriage in the U.S..  He was an influential force in the American Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage less than four decades later. He’s also gay. All these people sit on FAIR’s board of advisors.

Or maybe you think of someone like Monica Harris who is an activist, lawyer who graduated from Harvard and worked with Barack Obama, and author who “advocates for balanced, common-sense solutions to systemic problems based on our shared values and goals.” She is a gay Black woman. She’s also the executive director of FAIR.

Graphic novels have their own shelf at the Marshall Public Library in Marshall, Mo., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006. Orlin Wagner/AP Photo.

I find it frightening yet unsurprising that Simpson’s article, which calls for a return to liberalism,   was labelled as  “right-wing dog whistles” because it did not adhere to the current tribal doctrines whereby you must give absolute obedience to one side. 

We now live in a world where these sides of the political spectrum have drifted to become so far apart from one another; where any deviation of thought from either side’s tribal doctrine is seen as “extreme,” and where the person who espouses it must be branded as an undesirable and banished from the public square. The letter that French wrote was just that: a signal of absolute obedience to his tribe, and an effort to brand Simpson as an undesirable who must be banished.

We are living in a world where books, authors, and even librarians are being removed because they do not ascribe to the absolutist ideas of the Right and Left; where you must obey the sacred tenets of your “side” or “tribe.” Attempts to ban and censor have become mainstream. 

Over the years, in our Canadian school libraries and public libraries, books such as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Underground To Canada by Barbara Smucker, The Wars by Timothy Findley, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Salma Writes a Book by Danny Ramadan have all been the targets of some form of censorship and calls for removal. Some are still being targeted today.

Books are art. So, like any piece of art, there will be people who are going to like them and people who won’t. However, that doesn’t mean that we must then not make it available to everybody else. If we start removing works deemed controversial because of their themes or their authors from the shelves of public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores, then we are restricting people’s ability to engage with those topics. We are depriving them of topics that challenge their perspectives; topics beyond the ones that make them feel comfortable. 

Joanna Baron: It’s time to stop giving the pro-Palestine protestors the benefit of the doubt

Commentary

At a scrum on Monday morning, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about the protests on Parliament Hill over the weekend where pro-Palestine protestors chanted “Long live October 7” and “October 7 is proof that we are almost free.” As Jews were preparing to celebrate our liberation from slavery at the Seder table, and with over 130 hostages snatched by Hamas still unaccounted for, Freeland could not muster a clear condemnation of those who would celebrate their murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping. “I wasn’t in Ottawa over the weekend,” she demurred. 

A few hours later, after gathering her talking points, Freeland issued a statement expressing “shock and disgust” at the protests. But the fact that she needed time to consult with her comms staff before doing so is evocative of a much bigger problem. Imagine a crowd cheering in approval of the lynchings of Black people. Can there be any doubt that Freeland wouldn’t have found herself similarly muzzled in her response?

As protestors were jubilantly celebrating the October 7 pogroms as proof of their imminent freedom in Ottawa, campuses in the United States have been similarly roiled with increasingly tense pro-Palestine encampments. The campus groups are nominally asking for amnesty for students who had been suspended for earlier protests, divestment from certain Israel bonds, and disclosure of how the university invests its billions in endowments.

Some of the happenings at the Yale and Columbia encampments seemed like standard university tactics. There were exhortations to bring toothpaste, dance shows, and zine workshops. There were Shabbat services led by anti-Zionist Jewish student groups and Muslim prayers. I have to admit, as someone who hasn’t studied on a university campus for over a decade, I have a wistfulness for both youthful idealism and the meaning-making impulse to join up with a cause bigger than one’s self.

But erstwhile defenders of the youth simply expressing noble, if somewhat naive, pacificism, are missing the clear lust for violence on display at these protests. As much as I support free expression, the level of support for terrorist tactics like October 7 at these protests is a threat to liberal democracies that cannot be dismissed as mere peaceful protests by naïve youth.

There were cut-and-dry legal wrongs being committed: assault, including where Jewish students and faculty who merely committed the sin of being visibly Jewish were encircled with human chains and physically blocked. There was a young masked blonde woman who carried a sign menacing a group of pro-Israel counter-protestors as “AL-QASM’s NEXT TARGETS,” referring to the armed wing of Hamas that led the October 7th attacks and arguably a direct incitement to violence and clear grounds for expulsion under Columbia’s code of conduct. A Jewish woman, Sahar Tartak, was poked in the eye with a Palestinian flag and had to go to hospital.

But the most loathsome aspect of the weekend’s horror shows on both sides of the border was the unanimity with which pro-war, pro-eradication of Jewish and Israeli life, and pro-terror slogans were embraced by the crowds. The whole crowd joined in on chants of “Go back to Poland,” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground.” 

Two weeks ago in downtown Toronto, a “ceasefire now” pro-Palestine protest let its mask slip when, upon hearing a loudspeaker announcement that the Islamic Republic of Iran had sent 300 drones and missiles to Israel, virtually all those present, including children, hooted and cheered in delight. 

And, of course, in Ottawa, practically the whole crowd went along with gleeful chants in support of October 7. 

These protestors are not for peace, they are for violence— seemingly even beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. When they say death to America and death to Israel, I believe they mean it.

This truth which is apparent to anybody with eyes and 30 seconds to watch a social media clip is frequently being downplayed as a few bad apples. Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia Amira Elghawaby tweeted that the “problematic speech” of a “few individual protesters” is unacceptable and contrary to our shared values but then added she was concerned about “deliberate efforts to smear all protesters with one brush. It’s difficult to square Elghawaby’s assertion that it was only a “few individual protestors” when clearly the hateful chants were coming from the whole crowd on Parliament Hill.

Pro-Palestine protestors take part in a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Moreover, the pro-Palestine movement has repeatedly failed to purge itself from its continually prominent hateful elements. Not every Columbia student might have been onside with marking Jewish students as the Hamas Al-Qassam Brigade’s next targets, but there has been no public disavowal of this conduct, nor of violence against Jews and Israelis generally. As Bret Stephens noted in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “The mark of a morally serious movement lies in its determination to weed out its worst members and stamp out its worst ideas. What we’ve too often seen from the ‘Free Palestine’ crowd is precisely the opposite.”

This is no accident. It follows from the ideological foundations of the movement which are plain for anyone to see. The main student organization behind the campus protests, Students for Justice in Palestine, issued this statement after October 7th:

Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near.

In the settler-colonialism ideology, which was spoon-fed to the students at the same elite institutions now scrambling to contain its fruits, any critical assessment of the colonized’s means of resistance—apparently, up to and including rape and torture, and slaughter of innocents—is an unacceptable imposition of white colonizer standards.

Alarmingly, this ideological framework also extends to rejecting the basic premises of a free society governed by laws. Yesterday, Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted out “WE REFUSE TO BE SUBSUMED INTO A LIBERAL FIRST AMENDMENT FRAMEWORK!”

What they mean is that they don’t want to be accommodated within a liberal society, they want to burn it to the ground. We’d best listen and act accordingly.