An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.
Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.
The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.
He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?
A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.
He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.
The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.
There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.
We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.
History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.
I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html