Monday, March 05, 2007

Follow Up -- Peter French Lecture Cancelled

I just received the following email from another academic:

"Dr. Peter French cancelled the lecture at Kent State having found out how the flyer announcing his lecture misrepresents what he was going to talk about. He said that he was no expert on Serbia and the quotation was taken out of context and put on the flyer creating a false impression that he is dealing with Kosovo issue rather than an ethical-philosophical one."

If Peter French did not have ANY input into the contents of the poster announcing his lecture, then SerbBlog does owe him an apology. Whatever Peter French's reasons, I do believe that he did ultimately take an ethical stand in cancelling the presentation and for that we are grateful.

However, having said that, we are still troubled by the idea that the quote itself may have from Professor French, whether "taken out of context" & exploited or not. What possible "context" could this quote represent that wouldn't be racist?

"Serbian men described themselves as compelled to rape and murder Kosovar women & children. This provoked necessity was felt and sustained by collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries...".

Professor French's philosophical and sociological theories are based on "collective moral responsibility", whether that collective is represented by a corporation or a culture. To say that an entire culture is responsible for "the murder and rape of women & children" -- without substantiation -- is to tar everyone associated with that culture. And this is especially true if the reference to the culture is simply "an assumed premise" in the greater argument of whether or not one is individually responsible or the culture is collectively responsible." An "assumed premise" is even worse for an ethnic group as it means that the assumption itself is likely never opened to argument.

This now-cancelled lecture and poster issue had already assumed a life of its own. Several blogs have discussed it, including Volokh Conspiracy and The Boring Made Dull . Some posters seem to convey the idea that Serbs have created "a tempest in a teapot" and it is "a case of overreaction" by myself and others. Those same posters have not had the fifteen-year experience of being an American of Serbian descent and not being able to turn on the TV to relax without being assaulted with TV story lines involving "Serbians putting bombs in children's toys" (never happened), or "Serbs running (non-existent) Bosnian & Kosovar rape camps" -- or being asked what nationality your last name is and when you answer "Serbian", getting the most outrageous responses based on the speaker having read some other piece of anti-Serb propaganda fiction passed off as "fact". They have also never had the experience of having one's argument to this challenged automatically dismissed as "Serbian self-pity" , when in fact this label is just another piece of propaganda about the least "self-pitying" culture I know!

This issue goes well beyond Serbs, because while false assertions are being made about "Serbian men as rapists", the real victims of Albanian sex slavery rings in Kosovo run by Muslim Albanians, are completely ignored -- as is the Albanian traffic in narcotics and guns and Islamic terrorism.

An earlier anonymous poster argued with me that presentations like the now-cancelled lecture where not, as I had asserted, the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater because there was no "potential for loss of life or physical damage to life" by making untrue assertions about Serbs as an ethnic group , and that "psychological damage doesn't count".

I would argue that when the political fate of Kosovo is now hanging by a thread, and untrue assertions against Serbs could sway public opinion in a direction that does make a difference in eventual political outcome which could cause potential loss of life, then it is indeed "yelling fire in a crowded theater" by unfairly smearing Serbian men" as "rapists & murders of women & children" with no evidence.

Why do you think that so many journalists have lost their lives covering political conflicts in the last ten years? Because the combatants are well aware that in democracies what voters are made to believe about each of the combatants, indeed may be a matter of life and death in the formation of public policy and support for military action. This is why wartime propaganda is such a useful tool, not only in directing the masses inside the conflict, but also in affecting attitudes in the international community whose UN votes could mean the difference between military action against or material support for one of the combatants ultimately causing substantial "physical loss of life" to one or more of the parties. It is rare that anyone can point to one specific article, lecture or presentation that directly causes "a change in public opinion for military action" -- it rather usually a cumulative effect all the articles, lectures and presentations made on the subject that ultimately affects the tide of public opinion, even when the "assumed premise" of a single lecture has not been proven and even when the "assumed premise" is not even the point of the lecture!


I do believe that Peter French's ultimate actions in this case are honorable and to be applauded, as he has stated that the poster was not representative of the lecture he intended to deliver. But also understand that we had no way of knowing this until he withdrew and told us why. Had we not called the level of attention we did to this defamatory poster for the lecture, the presentation would have likely gone ahead as planned without Peter French ever even noticing the poster until he arrived to deliver his presentation. Personally, I think whoever decided the content for this poster and approved it, should be taken to task because they politicized what was likely not even intended as a political discussion.

For the last fifteen years, most American Serbian Orthodox Christians have kept their head down and their mouth shut, even when the most vile things were said about our religion and culture. But those days are now over -- it's been way too long. For once in this case, we organized and spoke out -- and I will admit that even I am quite surprised by the result. We were all hurt here -- including Peter French -- by a poster that I still believe was politically motivated by its creator -- and not just the result of "some random kid who didn't know what they were doing and went too far".

8 comments:

Bob said...

Professor French is fully aware that the KS flyer represents libel against the entire ethnic group. If his lecture contains similar defamatory claims, he would be criminally responsoble for a slander with malicious intent.

I believe he had a good reason to back off.

I also believe that this issue has to be pursued further, i.e. Professor French's lectures and/or writings should be checked for racist claims against the Serbs as a people, and if libelous statements are present, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The First should not be confused with hate speech.

Svetlana said...

I absolutely agree with you Melana, and with Bob - more and more this appears to be an attempt to push through another avalanche of filthiest propaganda comparable only to Hitler's smear campaigns, in hope it won't get noticed until it's too late.

I wouldn't rush with apologies until we get to the bottom of this issue. It certainly is not over and French has just put himself, his work and the KSU under a microscope. This "culture" of abusing the Serbian nation without the slightest regard or a trace of common decency (let alone ethics!) will have to end.

Anonymous said...

If anybody out there cares about the truth, it might interest you to know that I was a student of Prof. French's several years ago, and I can promise you that he is definitely not a racist or anti-Serb. He is, in fact, a very nice man who does not deserve any of these attacks. A friend forwarded me a statement he wrote about how his paper was misrepresented on those offensive posters. He was going to give a purely philosophical paper (probably pretty boring to most people, to be honest) that just happened to mention, among several other examples given in two paragraphs of a 20-page paper, the fact that Milosevic refered to the Field of Blackbirds in his speeches. He didn't "call all Serbs rapists and murderers," or anything like that. He was simply offering an example of how something that happened centuries ago, but is still held in collective memory, can affect the present. He doesn't say that people shouldn't be affected by collective memories, either -- just that they should be aware of how collective memories affect them. What is so wrong with that? Even if you disagree, it's hardly racist or hate speech. And he gave several other examples from other cultures, to show how common it is for people to hold on to collective memories.

The idea that the Prof. French is some kind of hate-filled monster is ridiculous. There are, sadly, plenty of real racists out there. Mis-directed venom is a waste of energy that is needed to fight true evil.

SerbBlog.com said...

In all fairness, there is a response said to be from Peter French on The Volokh Conspiracy website to this issue.

Although anyone who reads SerbBlog is aware that I am not -- nor have I ever been --a Milosevic supporter, it would be worthwhile for anyone who has never read that Milosevic speech which the Professor refers to as "a way of motivating Serbs against Kosovo/Albanian Muslims", to actually read it & show where it "incites Serbs against Albanians".

I am mystified as to how you and others cannot step outside of your position even momentarily to look at that poster and not see why Serbs would not be furious about it. Or how anyone can or could know that it did NOT represent what the Professor was to discuss? I'd also like to know why you and the professor have not condemned the creators of the poster -- given that it is supposed to NOT accurately represent his discussion -- as vehemently as you have condemned us for being horribly offended? Or does your sympathy only extend to academics or other politically correct ethnic groups? If you were to substiture the words "Jewish men" for "Serbian men" and "Palestinian women & children" for "Kosovo women & children", do you not think that every Jewish organization in the US would be all over the professor and this issue, too?

SerbBlog still believes that Serbs had every reason in the world to be offended by that poster -- and if that poster was the instrument that did both Serbs and Professor French harm, then the anger should be directed at the creator of the poster, not at us, as we had no way to seperate the professor's intent from the advertisement.

If a box is labeled "rat poison", it is reasonable to assume that "rat poison" is what it contains, not "Girl Scout Cookies"!

xenspirit3 said...

If peoples' sober comments and letters concerning an inflammatory poster can be seriously labeled as attacks, then one must look closely at the one who would respond in such a way. The original attack came from the poster. The response to the poster was a moral and principled one whereby hate speech was identified as such and not to be confused with free speech.

Many peoples who have suffered oppression and who are still alive to remember the atrocities of WWII, are very familiar with such lectures as Mr. French attempted to put on.

And they remember also what they led up to.

Svetlana said...

In his letter French claims that "this [his intended lecture] all undoubtedly sounds highly philosophical and probably rather dull to most people", the claim Anonymous poster parrots as a religious mantra, suggesting "most people", especially Serbs, can't even comprehend the philosophical heights and intellectual depths of French's "paper". Allow me to pause for good laugh! Is this man a complete idiot?! Unlike most Americans, most Serbs have gone through what's called "classical education", have had (actual) philosophy, ethics and logic as obligatory subjects since the high school and, from that perspective, would probably view French's paper as rather dull, but for quite the other set of reasons than those French likes to believe in.

No Professor worth his academic credentials would need to "peak the audience's interest" by giving biased and bigoted example in singling out one nation to prove his alleged 'philosophical' point.

In his response French says he does not believe "Serbian people are rapists and killers (although individual Serbs have raped and murdered, as have members of every ethnic group on Earth)".

So why single the Serbs out?! Why not speak of Finnish national epic Kalevala and try to tie that one in with the fact Finland was one of Nazi Germany’s closest allies during the Holocaust, that voluntary Finnish Nazi SS troops were one of the most committed and zealous Axis soldiers for Adolf Hitler, organized in SS Waffen units "Nordost" and "Wiking", responsible for deaths of millions of Russians and Jews?!

Why not tie the fact that Americans have an obligation to learn and repeat Pledge of Allegiance every single day in public schools, throughout the country, for decades, with the fact USA has led over 50 aggressive wars since the end of the WWII, is responsible for at least a dozen of genocides throughout the world (Japan, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Korea, etc.) and couple of dozens of "acts of genocide" and its troops are often found to be behaving in a manner contrary to what would be considered as honorable and ethical behavior in the war?

In fact, EVERY nation that is older than few hundred years does have myths, epics and common pool of thought that can be rightfully considered a "collective memory", so I suggest French starts with those from the Enlightened West and see how that ties in with his concept.

But he will not, because he knows he would've been crucified, because French is led to believe Serbs are an easy target everyone can abuse for their insignificant, racist little theories, because French, as every dishonest, cowardly, dishonorable little man hiding behind his "academic credentials" dares to throw a punch only at the weak and those he presumes defenseless.

Interestingly enough, French doesn't even mention the most pronounced warnings that his "lecture" will result in a very serious legal confrontation, since he would have been charged for libel and inciting ethnic and racial hatred, but goes on to suggest his family was afraid he would have been physically attacked. Bull! No, sir, Serbs don't go around doing Sulejman Talovic in States and around the world, they use their heads and legal means to confront the Serbophobic trolls such as French and the KSU jihadist nest.

French's response clearly shows that he is not only suffering from the anti-Serbian bias, but is also a liar. And a very bad one at that too.

Anonymous said...

Bob,

(1) slander is not criminal

(2) US law does not allow a group as a plaintiff for libel or slander - a plaintiff must prove personal injury/targeting and damage to their personal reputation in order to recover.

(3) Although there are some criminal libel laws still around - the probability is they are unenforcable under modern First Amendment jurisprudence (and they are virtually never used).

Gray Falcon said...

Please recall what the promotional poster said:
"During the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, Serbian men described themselves as compelled to rape and murder Kosovar women and children. This felt necessity was provoked and sustained by collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries."

Kosovo was ethnically cleansed - of Serbs, that is; but somehow I don't think that's what the poster-writer had in mind.
Who are these "Serbian men" who supposedly "described themselves" thus? There are none. It's a flat-out lie. And the "explanation" for it is even more of a stretch. Note that Prof. French isn't actually denying that the above-quoted statement is factually inaccurate. He merely says it's a footnote to his lengthy and dense philosophical lecture. Well, if this passage is an accurate summary of anything contained in the lecture, it's a blessing to the students of Kent State that it was canceled, as it doesn't take a degree in advanced philosophy to recognize rubbish when one sees it.