Tuesday, July 14, 2009

more controversy at my alma mater

Pundit's David Young - another Old Waikatoan - has drawn attention this week to an academic controversy that's been simmering away at the University of Waikato for just over a year. A Master's thesis supervised by political scientist and all round stand-up guy Dov Bing was withdrawn from the University Library and the University's online thesis repository after a complaint was made by the subject of the thesis, Neo-Nazi Kerry Bolton (who I'm actually not going to link to, because, you know, sometimes there ARE NOT two sides to the story). The thesis is now back on the shelves, but controversy remains.

Like David Young, I was at Waikato when the "Kupka Affair" exploded nine years ago, and was actually in the midst of an honours dissertation on Modern Jewish Literature at the time. I knew all the parties involved and was present at most of the protests and meetings. I was not a journalist or unbiased bystander. So you may wish to discount my memories: taking over University Council Meeting in peaceful protest, the room bought to hushed and guilty silence as a Holocaust survivor spoke of the pain caused by being interviewed about being German in New Zealand by a man who publicly denies the historical truth of the Holocaust. Watching my professors weep openly as they discovered that the University, a community they'd been part of for over twenty years, treated them as troublemakers and pariahs for daring to question the validity of the awarding of Kupka's thesis.

I cannot help but see this new controversy in the light of attitudes that emerged at that time. Dr Bing, and others were labelled radical and impartial - as if it is possible to be impartial about the Holocaust - and their opinions were marginalised. To have the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research - another good man, Doug Sutton - perpetuate the notion that there is a balanced (ie two sided) approach to Holocaust denial - makes a mockery of what Universities stand for. The deniers use the discourse of balance to undermine the historic truth of events in Europe; they use our human discomfort with a period of human history we would rather forget; they use our inability to imagine six million dead to tell us that perhaps they didn't really die.

It is the reponsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies: not to provide mealy-mouthed justification for the protection of lies and those who propagate them. To attempt to discount Bing's supervision because of his "long-standing" views against neo-Nazi groups is more than ridiculous - it is obscene. Thanks to people like Dr Dov Bing and Dr Norman Simms , the University of Waikato was a place that encouraged global perspectives, historical analysis with depth and breadth, polyglot understanding of literary contexts, and canonical texts read with twenty-first century eyes. Let's hope they are given the freedom and support to continue to do so.