Thursday, December 14, 2006


A couple of news items, oddly juxtaposed in today's Globe & Mail. Item: two conjoined twins are found to have a tissue "bridge" connecting their brains. And an outspoken St. Francis Xavier professor is in deep trouble, not for being a Holocaust-denier, but for going to a conference on the Holocaust in Iran, and expressing surprise that Holocaust-denying "hacks and lunatics" (his words) were present.

I have long been fascinated with the problem of consciousness, but my ruminations on this topic would probably make me lose the small (but dedicated) audience I already have. Suffice it to say that I have found little in the literature that satisfies me, although there is, admittedly, much more to be read. My own thought-experiments have to some extent focussed on the Star Trek series, although to my chagrin philosophers such as Derek Parfit and Richard Hanley (The Metaphysics of Star Trek) turn out to have done a far more thorough job of it. In any case, one of those experiments was to wonder what would happen if some of my neurons were physically joined to those of someone else: would we coexist, but know each other's thoughts? Would we become one person, staring out, as it were, through two pairs of eyes? Would the quintessential "thisness" of each of us disappear if a new person is created?

If the twins survive, we may get an answer to some of these questions.

Turning now to Professor Shiraz Dossa, whose consciousness per se is not yet an issue, although there have been calls for his head, one has to wonder about his stunning naivete about the Tehran conference. Imagine, a meeting to discuss whether the Holocaust took place, and anti-Semitic Holocaust-deniers show up. It's like attending a CLC convention and expressing shock that there are actually people there who favour the strike option.

The funny thing is, I believe him. People lie for advantage. Dossa simply made himself look incredibly unworldly, and for a professor of geopolitics, that's confidence-shaking, to put it mildly.

As for the conference itself, roundly condemned in most quarters, it should be pointed out that Dossa was not the only attendee who rejected Holocaust-denial. Ultra-orthodox Jews mingled with the usual suspects: ex-KKK leader David Duke, Robert Faurisson, a French Holocaust-denier, and Michele Renouf, an emissary of the disgraced "historian" David Irving currently in jail.

The event does raise some interesting issues, though. Should only the ludicrous side be heard? Does a professor really disgrace himself, his university and his country (his university president has publicly denounced him in the letters section of today's Globe) by showing up at this function and calling Holocaust-deniers hacks and lunatics?

More important, is a discussion of the social construction of the Holocaust really off-limits? Another Globe correspondent, for example, took issue with Dossa's reference to "the Jewish loss" in the Holocaust, claiming that the two were one and the same. But they aren't. The Holocaust claimed twelve million victims, including Poles, Roma, trade unionists and Communists. (My source for that figure, by the way, is the impeccable Nizkor website.) Yet only half of the Holocaust lives in the public mind. In commemoration ceremonies at Auschwitz in 1995, Roma representatives were not even permitted to participate.

Questioning the truth of the Holocaust, in any case, isn't an exercise in historical research, but bigotry and hatred, pure and simple. But must we be silent on the uses to which that truth is put? Professor Dossa thought not, and he will pay a stiff price, not only for
his odd obliviousness about the venue he chose for his comments, but for the comments themselves, which actually have some merit.

I doubt that he added lustre to the dismal Tehran colloquium, contrary to the shrill views now erupting all over the media, but
by attending he clearly acted against the interests he was trying to represent. Through his signal lack of consciousness, in fact, he had managed to conflate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism far more successfully than Israel's perennial apologists.

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