The owner of Brooklyn Commons, Melissa Ennen, has finally responded to the controversy around the appearance of 9/11 Truther and anti-Semite Christopher Bollyn. Unfortunately, her response is to defend his appearance at her venue. Here is her statement, in full:
“During the past week I have been bombarded by emails objecting to the upcoming talk by Christopher Bollyn at The Commons on the grounds that he is anti-Semitic. People are demanding that I cancel the event. Some are threatening dire consequences for The Commons. What has brought us to this?
On July 14, I received an email from a man named Irving Lee asking to rent the Commons in September for a talk by Christopher Bollyn. Bollyn was described in the email as a 9/11 researcher who had been on a Pacifica/WBAI program called Guns & Butter hosted by Bonnie Faulkner. Irving Lee, the man who booked and paid for the rental, identified himself as follows: “We are not part of any organization. We’re just a group who want to bring Bollyn, a cutting edge speaker to NYC for the 15th anniversary of 9/11.”
I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space. Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although progressive organizations dominate the calendar because I subsidize many of them with free or very low-cost use of the space, the Commons is available for rental by other groups.
This morning some of the people who rent co-working spaces at The Commons issued a statement denouncing the Bollyn event, declaring that “such [antisemitic] politics should have no place in leftist spaces.” I agree that all forms of racism should have no place in leftist spaces, but in my opinion, to get to the root of racist thinking, confrontation works better than censorship.
During the past six years at The Commons, I have observed many incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia and gender-identity discrimination, not to mention the pervasive exercise of class privilege. We live in a sick society, and leftists are not immune. This is why I encourage groups to use the Commons as a safe space for workshops and other events where they can explore and/or escape the hate and pain engendered by our many divisions.
But I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.
In yesterday’s New York Times op-ed section, among a collection of letters devoted to Free Speech on Campus, is one from Paul Frantz in San Francisco: “As a Stanford University engineering student in the 1970s, I jumped at the chance to hear a presentation by the Nobel laureate William Shockley, whose contribution to the invention of the transistor changed the world. His presentation turned out to be hateful, white-supremacist pseudo-scholarship about the supposed intellectual inferiority of black people. I learned some of the most important lessons of my college career at that presentation. I learned that high I.Q. does not imply wisdom or character. I learned what can go wrong when everyone tells you how brilliant you are, and you believe them. And I learned that the smartest guy in the room can be wrong. To this day, I am grateful there were no protestors on hand to prevent a racist from teaching me those lessons.”
Let’s examine her points, one by one.
It is telling that Ennen uses the term “censor” to describe taking responsibility for who appears at the venue she owns, and ensuring that hate speech does not find a forum there. But that aside, Ennen clearly fails to distinguish between hate speech and various political ideologies. She does not see The Commons as a progressive space. That’s fine, and as such, it can be open to the various speakers she names. But none of those groups she names are explicitly hate groups (however much many racists, sexists, war profiteers, etc. might be associated with them). In hosting Bollyn, she is giving a forum to an explicit anti-Semite who has been spewing his hate for many years.
As I have pointed out, it is absolutely understandable that Bollyn has been able to get into various venues under the radar. His name is not widely known. But her plea of “lack of time” doesn’t mesh well with the swift response, for example, of Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, who sprang into action once he was made aware of Bollyn’s views. Shallal owns numerous restaurants and is very active politically. He has a lot on his plate, but immediately made time for this issue.
Finally, Ennen trots out the tired argument about bringing racist views to light. I actually have some sympathy for this idea, in the abstract. I do believe that bigotry in all its forms is best confronted, not suppressed. I think suppression leads to a seething cauldron of hate under the surface just waiting for the right demagogue (maybe one named, oh, say, Trump, for example) to bring it erupting to the surface. But that does not mean providing the platform for racists to spew their hatred–they have places where they can, and do, speak.
Moreover, this argument would ring a lot truer of Ennen herself didn’t share at least some of Bollyn’s bizarre Truther views. That she does not disclose this rather important point in her statement helps her create a false impression that she is merely trying to present a wide range of views. In fact, she is either promoting anti-Semitism or is willing to allow it to be preached in service of her own views. This is not about presenting a range of views, but about Ennen promoting her own views, so let’s drop the pretenses at least.
Meanwhile, more groups have raised their voices against Bollyn’s appearance. Notably, CUNY For Palestine, which advocates a boycott of Israel and specifically an academic boycott, condemned the Commons for hosting Bollyn. I suppose to Bollyn and possibly to Ennen as well, they, too, are part of the global Jewish conspiracy.