Next Question, Please (An Introduction)

I’m a nervous guy. My
day job requires little in the way of human contact, but even the requisite
niceties leave me feeling depleted and antsy.   Catch
me on the street and my flee instinct will be tripped to the third alarm before
we can exchange platitudes and chat up the weather. I self-medicate with coffee and cheap American beer, but such fixes
only temper the edge. I generally avoid
confrontation and controversy. The last
thing I want to do is make someone uncomfortable. Because believe me, I know
the feeling. Leave a message and I’ll
return your call, thank you.

The Hoover Hog is
where I make the exception. I probably
should have worked out a better excuse by now, but that’s how it always breaks
down. If you’re looking for a cheap reduction, I suppose the best I can do is
to describe this here weblog as a record of the efforts of one socially inept dilettante
– and that would be me – to study on and glean some loose-knit meaning from the
contentious questions that invariably pique and preoccupy his ever-graying gray

But while the festivities may hover around the inchoate fusion
of potentially incendiary subjects that good people instinctively know not to
broach in polite company, the thought-crime
is really just a convenient hook – a post-hoc signpost custom-suited to
reflect the drifting peregrinations of a restive and reckless mind.  Some people slake their homunculi with drugs
or music or politics, but I find the prevailing social and academic taboos are
what serve to keep things interesting. 

I know what you’re thinking. And for what it’s worth, I have
nothing against cheap thrills or gawking curiosity. I’m
generally quick to wince, however, when I hear the culture mavens churn out the
same long-rehearsed litany of meretricious excuses. If you feel compelled to spin some
argot-dense palaver on the meta-political subtext
of a Mapplethorpe photo-essay
, go ahead and waste your time; I say it’s
enough that they’re compelling  images. Or not. It should be enough, really, that
we are free to see.

But it would be a mistake to assume that The Hoover Hog trades in prurience or
provocation. Because outside the galleries and right-brain cloisters, where the
stakes are more urgently delineated and the rules don’t readily bend to whim or
abstrusely defined fashion, that’s where the dissonant static – and the
concomitant urge to censor – keeps buzzing on high.

Most days I’d rather watch old SCTV episodes than contemplate the
vicissitudes of the IQ controversy, but then I catch the latest PBS expose’
begging me not to believe my lying eyes, and somehow I just can’t help but ask
the next question. Or just as I’m beginning to enjoy my third
bowl of Rice Crispies, I read where they’ve arrested David Irving and no one gives a
, and like a fifth Non-blond, I simply have to ask: what’s going on? Even if, more often
than not, I keep it to myself.

I’m not proud. I’m
not bored. But I am working from first
here. And let me tell you, we have a problem on our hands.

It all came back to me In early 2005, when Harvard’s
beleaguered president, Lawrence Summers, proffered
a few speculative noodlings
on the role innate differences might play in influencing gender disparities
among top professionals in the hard sciences.  It was a scholarly
and Larry wasn’t saying anything we haven’t all wondered about from
time to time, nor was he treading beyond the scientific consensus on
matters of neurobiology and cognitive psychology. By all accounts, he had
spoken in good faith and his words were parsed with the usual palliative qualifiers.
To the self-appointed arbiters among the professoriate, however, the verdict
was preordained; loose-lipped Larry had polluted the intellectual decorum of the forum with
the stink of crimethink.
And there would be consequences. 

You could forget those glossy cover stories touting “the decade of the brain.” And never
mind that Summers was referring only to the Aspergery
tech-nerds at the furthest sliver of the Gaussian distribution of
tech-nerdery. It didn’t matter that his remarks were couched in
hypothetical terms and contextually nuanced, with most of the causal
inference imparted to the usual socially-constructed culprits. It was
enough that Larry raised the subject at all. The notion that mental traits might
not distribute in lockstep conformity with some goldilocks ideal
of egalitarian justice was still too much for some very
serious people to tolerate. 

Remember what happened? In an oft-recounted fit of revulsion, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins literally fled
from the forum. "I felt I was going to be sick,” she explained, “My heart
was pounding and my breath was shallow." Hopkins said that if she had remained present, she would have “either blacked out or
thrown up."

Taking their cue, other feminists would marshal their waning
influence to publicly shame the unenlightened Harvard prez into the requisite
displays of effusive contrition, with the corollary promises of face-saving largess
securely attached. And after all the hue
and cry and sad public ritual had played its course, the old order was restored
and everyone was back on script. Apologies
were made
, programs were established. A chill was felt. 

This is what happens. 

Perhaps you’re thinking it goes with the territory; that a
big Ivy League cheese like Summers knows the game and can reap the shit he
stirs. It’s a point I hear from time to
time. I might reply that you’re glossing
past some fundamental issues. But first
I should invite you to consider the less publicized but more disturbing case of
a dissident Holocaust researcher named David Cole. 

Even for people who are sincerely committed to the idea of
free inquiry, the subject of Holocaust revisionism – nay, denial – can be a bit of a show-stopper. If you’ve read enough to know that revisionist arguments,
regardless of their merits or shortcomings, are not inherently anti-Semitic or
you may still harbor a kind of vague discomfiture about the whole
business. The atmosphere isn’t as
poisonous as it was a decade ago, but my sense is that skepticism about the
scale, enormity, or uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust often stirs a kind of
visceral, extra-rational, unease that is probably subjectively similar to a
moral sense of sacrilege. 

Being exposed to David Cole’s meticulous, forensically
deductive research on “the question of the gas chambers” can thus be a jarring
experience in cognitive dissonance. This is true in part because Cole’s methods
and logically analytical approach belie a political agenda. But let’s not kid ourselves; it is also
because he is Jewish. 

Back in the mid 90s, after I first saw Cole’s historically significant
(in which he interviews Auschwitz museum director, Dr. Franciszek Piper) and
read his tightly reasoned paper, “Forty-six
Important Unanswered Questions on the
Nazi Gas Chambers
,” I contacted David to ask if he would be interested in submitting
something for a low rent magazine that I was putting together. In the brief
correspondence that followed, he explained that he was busy with ongoing
research, but offered to let me publish some material he had originally written
for Pat Hartman’s
(now defunct) journal, Salon. I
happily obliged, and the essays that subsequently appeared in the print version
of The Hoover Hog were lively and provocative,
revealing a street-smart critical thinker at the top of his game. David seemed
a bit cocksure, but he was good-humored and surefooted in his reasoning, and I
defy any honest reader to find a trace of bigotry (or credulity) in his arguments
or commentary. 

I was disappointed when David stopped replying to my
letters, but it turned out he had a good excuse. 

Here is what happened. In 1994, Irv Rubin, the late director of the Jewish Defense League, posted a notice on his
organization’s website that can fairly be described as a “death warrant,” with
Mr. Cole – branded a “Jewish traitor” – in the crosshairs. Lest you suspect I
am indulging in hyperbole, consider that the initial JDL post bore the following

is David Cole and Why Must He Die.”

 A subsequent post described Cole as a
“monster” who must be “eliminated altogether.” Referring to Cole without a
trace of rhetorical irony, the JDL asked, “[D]on’t you think it’s time that we
flush this rotten, sick individual down the toilet, where the rest of the waste
lies?,” adding that, “[o]ne less David Cole in the world will certainly not end
Jew-hatred, but it will have removed a dangerous parasitic, disease-ridden
bacteria from infecting society” The “notice” featured a helpful photograph of the
“Jewish Traitor” and promised a “monetary award” for “anyone giving us his correct

The JDL, it should be noted, has long been recognized as an
organization that employs terrorist
, and Irv Rubin and his thugs have been implicated or suspected in
politically motivated threats, assaults, and fire-bombings throughout the
organization’s recent  history. When such an
organization places a warrant on your head, it’s not something you shake off
easily. So it was no surprise, really, when Cole was physically assaulted only
months after Rubin’s threat began to circulate. Nor was it be a surprise when, under a kind of pressure most of us can
only imagine, Cole publicly recanted his revisionist views, thereby gaining
amnesty from Rubin’s death threat. Ever
the magnanimous chap, Irv Rubin would later comment that Cole’s public
recantation was “evidence of the power of the Jewish Defense League.” 

I remember the surreal buzz I got reading the text of Cole’s
notarized “recantation
that was published on the JDL website. “I now understand,” it read, “that I owe
it to the people I wronged to make a forceful repudiation of my earlier views.
I also owe a very large apology, not only to the many people I enraged, and to
the family and friends I hurt, but especially to the survivors of the
Holocaust, who deserve only our respect and compassion, not re-victimization.” The statement went on to describe how Irv
Rubin had helped to show the error of Cole’s misguided views and rescue him
from the downward spiral of Jewish self loathing. 

Needless to add, this was not the voice of the spirited myth-busting
freethinker with whom I had corresponded. I remember being stabbed with a
frisson of regret over the many times I had tacitly abided the familiar
rhetoric about the danger posed by Holocaust deniers. Somewhere, I couldn’t help but imagine,
Foucault was laughing. 

With Irv Rubin now rotting at a safe distance somewhere six
feet under, I am happy to report that David Cole has re-emerged, albeit
briefly, to publicly comment on the atmosphere (if not the specific
circumstances) that precipitated his statement and subsequent exile. In an interview with Christopher Cole (no
relation) and Bradley Smith’s “Campaign to Decriminalize
Holocaust History
,” David offers some perspective on the repressive power
of taboo. "When Rubin put the ‘hit’
on me,” he explains, “I realized I had to get out.”

In the end, regardless of my love
of history, I didn’t want to die. It was just that simple. And that’s what
happens when violence and intimidation, or the threat of prosecution, like in Europe and Canada, are
introduced into a debate. Anyone who has anything to lose shuts the hell up, or
gets the hell out.                

Maybe we’re beginning to cut a little closer, then. But whatever
hardships David Cole may have endured as a JDL effigy, you may yet observe that
he still walks and breathes and kvetches, doesn’t he? Punk ass Jew.  Should’ve known what he was getting into. 

But if Mr. Rubin neglected to sign his love letter, there is
yet a point at which the slippery slope casuistry collides with an altogether
different mode of expression. As Theodore
reminds us, “There are still many who would rather kill than
brook any contradiction of their opinions or beliefs, even while they live in
the most tolerant of societies.”  Just
ask Theo van Gogh’s mutilated corpse. 

Theo van Gogh, in case you’re wondering, was the great-grand
nephew of the famous daisy painter.
He was a self-styled writer and filmmaker and, by most accounts, a bit of an asshole. In his columns and public
pronouncements, van Gogh was known for his sardonic-to-hostile riffs, often at the
expense women and religious minorities. But
while his brash public persona often raised hackles from European culture
mavens, it was a cinematic foray into Muslim-baiting blasphemy that got his ass

The object of special condemnation was a ten minute art
flick called Submission. Based on a
script by Somali-Dutch activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Submission
used deliberately provocative imagery to draw attention to the plight of women
in Islamic society. The film focused on four veiled Muslim women subversively adorned
in see-through shawls. As the camera trails sensuously over their shadow-draped,
half-nude bodies, revealing bruises and whip-marks, a female voiceover provides
first-person testimony to the brutal uxorial subjugation that continues under
the yoke of Islamic patriarchy. To make matters worse, the confessional
narrative is punctuated with images of Koranic verses painted in Arabic across the
Allah-forbidden female flesh. 

To occidentally jaded eyes, Submission
plays like an MTV public service announcement. But for Muslim viewers less
accustomed to boilerplate indie cineaesthetics, it was enough to bring the long-simmering
Islamic rage to a flashpoint. Thus after van Gogh’s film premiered on Dutch
public television in August of 2004, the death threats began to trickle in.  In short order, a critic cum assassin named Mohammed Bouyeri would
step up to bring the curtain down. 

Not content to post his two cents on Rotten Tomatoes, the recently radicalized
26 year old Dutch-Moroccan jihadist shot van Gogh off his bicycle in broad
daylight on a busy Amsterdam street on the morning of November 2, 2004. As the
wounded filmmaker pleaded for his life, Mohammed hit him with another round
before slitting his throat. 

A rambling five page note was found stabbed to the Dutchman’s
slaughtered remains. The text was directed not at van Gogh, but at the
"infidel fundamentalist" Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had forsaken her duty
to Allah to march “with the soldiers of evil.” The letter is a shambolic
concatenation of rant and wrath, but it does have its moments. Here’s my
favorite bit: 

There will come a Day when one soul
will not be able to help another soul. A Day of horrible tortures and painful
tribulations which will go together with the terrible cries being pressed out
of the lungs of the unjust. Cries…which
will cause chills to run up a man’s spine, and cause the hair on his head to
stand straight up. People will appear to be drunk with (with fear) even though
they aren’t drunk. On that Great Day the atmosphere will be filled with

 So for Theo, the Great Day came sooner than expected. When your
critics aren’t bound by the dictates of civility and reason, and when the natural
human impulse to censor is amplified by vassalage to some sanguine medieval
fascist god who wants those bitchy infidels bitchslapped into worm meat, well, this
is how you get the job done. It simplifies the dialectic, really. And it should have come as no surprise. 

But while the motives of Allah’s soldiers can be understood
within the ideological framework of militant Islam, the conspicuous
paucity of secular outrage over van Gogh’s execution was a different
matter. Whether out of personal animus
or some perverse cathexis to multicultural shibboleths, many within the liberal
commentariate were inclined to downplay van Gogh’s slaying, with some even
suggesting that the scruffy cineaste provocateur got what was coming to him. 

This tendency was acutely illustrated by a bombastic essay for the British
journal, Index on Censorship, in which
associate editor Rohan
Jayasekera dismissed van Gogh as “the Jerry Springer of Dutch politics” who
“abuse[ed] his right to free speech.”
With a semi-rhetorical wink, Jayasekera
summed up his obloquy by encouraging that we “applaud Theo van Gogh’s death as
the marvelous piece of theatre it was.”

 A sensational climax to a
lifetime’s public performance, stabbed and shot by a bearded fundamentalist…
Theo van Gogh became a martyr to free expression.   

This is what happens. This is how it’s done. 

What I’m saying is so much simpler. I am saying the stakes should never be so grave.
When a human being is slaughtered or imprisoned or publicly browbeaten for expressing
ideas, the cheap excuses and partisan bluster will always ring hollow. David and Larry may have been bullied into
silence, but Theo’s murder reminds us of the endgame. And the apologetic
rhetoric reminds us of the crisis that remains. This is where the iterations
don’t yield to nuance. Or so I will insist. 

And this is what I’m getting at – the moral cynosure
underlying the naked curiosity for which no apology is warranted. 

"The profoundest of all infidelities," Herbert
is said to have said, "is the belief that the truth will be
bad." I like the sentiment. On my better days I welcome the light of day with
a swell of sweet humanist élan suited to our highest yearnings. Then I peer beyond
the rose-tinted wish and whim, and I am sobered to the implacable reality that
it simply doesn’t matter. 

There’s that Stephen Crane verse from high school:

 A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation

I close the refrigerator door and crack open the next to
last Rolling Rock. The first long
drink hits me slow and cold and in the stillness of the late night kitchen my
thoughts turn once again to the ineffable. For a familiar fragile instant I can
almost grasp the apocalyptic truth that eluded Theo van Gogh’s assassin.

No one talks eschatology these days. It’s too easy to forget
that the end of the world remains a tangible reality for every one of us who
lives yet to die. Which is why the political noise never adds up to much. Once
you cast your gaze into the proverbial abyss, there’s nothing left to
do but embrace the romance of the next moment, to stab at the received verities
no matter where the sacred cow chips fall. Nihilism fuels the furnace, but freedom
– the quixotic ideal – is the elixir. For me, the choice is clear
cut.  All bets are off.

And that may be the best reason to ask the next question.