Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Shiraz Dossa meet William Riker

I am quite late to be commenting on the case of Shiraz Dossa of St. FX. For those who have not followed the case, Prof. Dossa found himself in a world of trouble when he accepted an invitation to present a paper this fall at a government-sponsored conference on the Holocaust in Iran.

The good professor, if you can believe it, suggested that he was not aware that the conference would be attended by Holocaust deniers. Funny, given that the government of Iran has basically taken the denial of the holocaust as the highest truth. Anyways, Prof. Dossa was called to the carpet by the Riley administration at X.

Prof. Dossa responded by arguing that the best way to address hate is by confronting it, rather than running away. So, I am sure he can let us all know exactly how he called down the holocaust deniers in his midst. What did he say? When did he say it (surely not during the tour of Iran which he patrons also gave him)? And to whom did he say it?

While we are waiting for this - for a long, long time, I suspect - I thought I might share what is a real example of courage and denunciation. William Riker - on the two or three most important political scientists of the 20th century - travelled to Moscow in 1979 for the International Political Science Association meetings. When he presented his famous paper, "Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions" (APSR Vol 74: 432-446), he concluded with the following:

Given the location of the platform for the presentation of this paper, I should conclude with the observation that political science can exist only in an open society, that is, a society with unfettered freedom of speech. Insofar as the science involves a study of values and tastes, scientists can be acurate in their predictions only if they are able to ignore official doctrine (as for example in Marxism) about the preferences and interests of groups and classes. Official doctrine may be right or wrong, but whether it is or is not right is a subject not for offical decree but rather for empirical investigation, which is possible only in an open society. Moreover, insofar as the science of politics involves the study of institutions, scientists must be able to examine critically the way governmental institutions operate at the highest as well as the lowest levels of government. Only thus can they study the way institutions systematically bias the selection among preferences. Of course, this means that governmental secrecy, if it exists, prohibits scientific investigation of political structures.

Which of the two - official doctrine about preferences or governmental secrecy - is the more inhibiting for scientific inquiry probably varies from place to place. But I believe secrecy is more often a barrier. The scientist can often guess fairly well about tastes and preferences, but the way institutions work is extremely difficult to guess about. Consequently, if I am correct in believing that the study of tastes is not enough and that one must study institutions as well, then it follows that the new emphasis on institutions as a necessary part of the science of politics probably precludes this science in any society governed secretly.

Finally, there is another way in which the conclusions of this paper imply that political science can exist only in an open society. One important conclusion, indeed the most important conclusions, of the line of reasoning set forth in this paper is that, in the long run, nearly anything can happen in politics. Naturally this conclusion is a sharp contradiction of all philosophies of history (such as Marxism) that necessitate a belief in the existence of a determined course for the future. This belief is precisely what the discoveries recounted in this paper deny. So, if these discoveries are true - and mathematically they appear to be irrefutable - then a science of politics is incompatible with Marxism.

Prof. Dossa meet Prof. Riker. He was nobody's stooge.


Anonymous said...

What harm has he done to anyone? Is it not better of St FX to have allowed Dussa to attend the conference, and make an idiot of himself, than to prevent him from attending, thereby keeping his (assumed) radical views out of the spotlight?

Freedom of speech is freedom of speech is freedom of speech. If it helps expose the Dussa's of the world, I am for it.

Peter Loewen said...

He's done harm to his university, and this is his administration's concern. And, to a small degree, he's brought shame to his discipline. And I think it was reasonable for the university to call him to the carpet.

I am not at all questioning his right to go to Iran and keep company with cranks. I am only trying to demonstrate what I thought was a moment of courage - namely Riker's addendum in Moscow - versus Dossa's apparent silence.

dru said...

I'm not sure a strong criticism of people whose conference you attend should be considered the pinnacle of principled courage. Seems to me that the real indicator of that is when you stand to suffer real consequences but take a stand anyway.

I don't know the situation, but I can't imagine that Riker got anything but accolades for his actions from his colleagues stateside. While it's neat that Riker had the temerity to make his nominally Marxist hosts feel awkward, he didn't put much on the line by doing it. Thus, I can't take the situation in question as demonstrating that he was "nobody's stooge".

More conclusive evidence, in my opinion, would have been if Riker, for example, stood up at a conference at Harvard and said pointed out the contradiction between nominally standing for democracy and overthrowing dozens of democratic governments in the name of anti-communism, and replacing them with military dictatorships. Or between that same nominal stance and, say, Operation Condor.

Now, I don't know if he did or not, as I know nothing about Riker, but if he had, I suspect you'd not be referring to him as one of the greats.

Dossa may have accepted the invitation without understanding the consequences for his career, which would make him tactically impertinent rather than brave, but it's hard to argue that he was attending because it would make his life or career easier.

But in attending, is one really obligated to make a show of criticizing one's hosts? No doubt there's a time and a place, but is that *necessary* when dealing with people whose views you abhor--as opposed to simply giving an account of the truth as you see it, which is what academics are generally paid to do? By the bits I read, that seems to have been Dossa's approach.

Unless one is constrained or compelled to say particular things, the main ethical questions is whether or not to attend. Condemn, or attempt reform? Assess, and decide.

But why the need to make a scene? After all, holocaust denial isn't all bad. The US, UK and Israel all officially deny the Armenian Genocide was genocide, for example. We just don't see headlines about *that* very often. But if you're talking about opportunities to be "nobody's stooge", then the most effective place to avoid partaking of stooginess is at home.


Peter Loewen said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I do think that Riker's was a moment of courage. Indeed, it took at least as much courage as standing up at home and saying America is committing crimes abroad. After all, people do that everyday. Indeed, it's even fashionable at times. At least as fashionable as doing it at home.

However little risk he incurred, it was certainly more than Dossa apparently incurred, given that he has given no evidence that he actually spoke out against his hosts.

Frankly, I think Dossa attended because he wanted a free trip to Iran. But that's no reason to cavort with such ilk, whether or not the free tour can be wrapped up in an academic cloak.

As for Riker's importance to the discipline, it has nothing at all to do with his addendum in Russia. Rather, it has to do with him writing two or three great books, building a great institution, and being instrumental in the transformation of the discipline.

dru said...

Hi Peter,

I agree that Dossa was less risky, at least vis a vis the hosts of his respective conference.

And I agree that it is, at times, fashionable to point out the crimes of the US.

But at other times, it isn't at all fashionable. It's certainly not fashionable to stand up and point out (for example) that Canada played a key role in removing an entire elected government in Haiti, and funded the people who carried out a subsequent terror campaign against political activists and organizers in the poor neighbourhoods.

That would be seen as disruptive to the extent that it had an effect, and ignored to the extent that it did not.

I suppose I'd be more comfortable with Iran and people like Dossa getting all this attention if the Canadian media even bothered to cover (in any way) conferences in Ottawa that plot the overthrow of democratically elected governments, to cite one of many examples.

But now I'm once removed from what you originally wrote, and thus off topic. Carry on.


Anonymous said...

What has Dossa done wrong? Is he being an anit-Semite or is he questioning how the Holocaust is now another tool in the zionists quest to justify a state of Israel which competely ignores the rights of Palestinians? Take a look who was at the conference. Orthodox Rabbi's who oppose zionism and sympathise with Palestians. Is the topic of the Holocost so sensitve that we cannot question those who use it for their own political agenda? A university is a place for debate and expression of opinion. DOSSA HAS NEVER DENIED THE HOLOCAUST. Find me an article where he has denied the Holocaust for I would gladly like to see it. I watched in shock as CBC ran a story of Dossa. The picture showed Dossa beside an old photo of victims from the Holocaust. This is a persuasive way of implying that one is either for Dossa or for the validity of the Holocaust. Shame on the media for trying to ruin this man's reputation. Take away the freedom of questioning peoples motives for using the Holocaust for their own greed for a state and you're taking away the one thing that a university was constructed on...the ability to question and search for reason. I would suggest that students ask themselves what kind of people they will choose to support concerning this matter. Ask questions, moblize, write up petitions. Your freedom to question depends on it.

Peter Loewen said...

My objection, if you read my post, is not at all about his paper, which I have not read and don't plan to. It's about two things:

i) he accepted an invitation to meet with pretty vile people, on their dime.
ii) he's provided no evidence that he did anything either than take their free trip and read a 15 minute presentation. There is no evidence of a denunciation. And if you don't think that Holocaust deniers need to be denunciated then we don't have much to talk about.

Blather on all you want about academic freedom and the right to free speech. I for one don't think that my academic freedom would keep my university from cutting me loose if I started presenting my papers at meetings of white supremacists. What Dossa did is logically equivalent, and it's for shame.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if your definition of courage coincides with mine. There is no need to assume or think, Peter Loewen, that I don't think that Holocaust deniers should be denounced. All I can ask of you is to trust that both you and I are on the same page when it comes to this. Our difference lies in the fact that you have started off by saying that you have not read Dossa's paper and that you don't plan on reading it. If this is your course of action, how do you plan on finding out what Dossa's true intentions were? Or might that conflict with your idea of him?
It sounds as if (and correct me if I'm wrong), that you would only see Dossa in a courageous light had he spoken out against the likes of David Duke and the other number of misfits present.
I will ask only one thing of you. What if Dossa's objective to attend this conference was to help Tehran make it's point. "that the West's commitment to freedom of speech extends only to insulting someone else's sacred cow's" Stephen Gowes.
The more I read about this conference, the more I see that it was not an anti-Jewish gathering, but one that promoted anti-zionism. Looking at the state of the Palestinian people and the extent of the harm brought upon them by the zionist movement, I believe this is something to question heavily.
I think that Ahmadinejah invited the David Dukes of the world in order to shock the West, the media and other's such as yourself. In the words of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "In this freedom, casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned, but insulting the beliefs of 1.5 billon Muslims is allowed."
Keep in mind, Dossa never denounced the Holocaust. What he said was "anyone who denies it is a lunatic." Just because a man hasen't reached your ideals of Riker dosen't mean that he hasen't reached the rest of us.

Peter Loewen said...

If you think that there was any honour in that conference then we have nothing to talk about. Do you think Tehran's point was to judiciously explore how the Holocaust may be politicized? The same one Holocaust that they officially deny? Sorry. That won't cut the mustard.

This, I thought, was a nice quote: "The more I read about this conference, the more I see that it was not an anti-Jewish gathering, but one that promoted anti-zionism." Keep lying down with these people; but expect fleas in the morning.

Anonymous said...

If it was a Holocaust denial conference, then there is absolutely no honour in it whatsoever. If it was a conference that was questioning the zionist movement, then I agree with putting it on the table for questioning. I guess I would have to ask you if you think the Holocaust is being used by some in order to establish the state of Israel? If so, is this justified?
My point is that zionism should not be equated with Judaism. Judaism is a religion, not a race or a nationality. If, and only if, this conference was criticizing zionism do I think it necessary for us to look carefully at the objectives and repercussions of zionism. Talk all you want of me sleeping with a certain type of people. Enjoy that hot dog with all your mustard, specialty relish or whatever else you care to dress it up with. I'm just grateful I'm not the one eating it.

Peter Loewen said...

It would take you about twenty seconds on google to see what the point of the conference was about.

Anonymous said...

I could say the same to you. It just depends on what sources of the media you rely on. You still haven't answered my question.

Peter Loewen said...

Yes, the media sure give Ahmadinejad such a bad name.

I guess I didn't answer your question because it is so patently obvious. Was the Holocaust a motivation for giving Jews a state in Israel? Um, yeah. That's no news.

Anonymous said...

I understand these comments were made a while back but I thought I would respond anyway.

I was a student at Stfx, took a number of classes from Dossa and even had some private conversations with him. While he was always controversial for his views, he has never denied the holocaust or allied himself ideologically with neo-fascists. In fact he personally expressed his disgust to me over holocaust deniers and neo-fascists. The issue of Dossa being a holocaust denier or even remotely anti-semitic is a non-issue.

Who knows what drew Dossa to Iran but my personal opinion is that his critical view of American and Israeli politics was the motivation. Iran is one of the very few countries in the world to directly challenge the US and Israel. I believe Dossa wanted to hear out the Iranian criticisms first hand and assess them for himself. Fair enough in my opinion. He was not there to join hands with the likes of David Duke. It was purely from intellectual interest.

A case of curiosity killing the cat? Perhaps. What I do know is that he was a very engaging professor. A believer in the freedom of speech as well as a staunch advocate for human rights.