When Blogs Cross a Line

John Degen is a writer whose day job is that of a civil servant employed by the Ontario Arts Council. He frequently launches uninformed ad hominem attacks against anyone who questions Access Copyright. Curiously, these rants are regularly tweeted by Barry Sookman, who ought to know better.

Degen’s blog of September 24, 2012 states that “…there comes a point when you just get tired of listening to the shrieking crusaders who want to take away your rights. And then those same crusaders smirkingly portray themselves as Nazis, just before Yom Kippur.”

What provoked Degen’s ire was a retweet of mine linking to a recently made video clip of the Hitler Rant genre. In this particular one Hitler rants when he finds out that his university signed the Access Copyright Model License. Some may find these parodies funny, others find them tasteless, but there hundreds if not thousands of them, including in Israel (if you read Hebrew subtitles you can watch Hitler complaining about being unable to find parking in Tel Aviv, or about the curriculum of the Faculty of Agriculture at the Hebrew University, among others). Producing those videos is, according to the NY Times, “refreshingly easy.”

Apparently, my tweet prompted Mr. Degen to suggest that Michael Geist, myself Ariel Katz, Howard Knopf, and Sam Trosow—none of whom had anything to do with this very ambiguous video, and all of whom happen to be Jewish—are behind this video. He then followed up with a tweet: “enemies of collective licensing in Canada happily depict themselves as Nazis… really”. Really.

To link the four of us to this video and to Yom Kippur and to suggest that we, the “enemies”, depict ourselves as Nazis is, at the very least, completely ignorant and offensive. It may as well be defamatory, but I’m already used to Degen’s rants.

But yesterday, Barry Sookman tweeted Mr. Degen’s blog post, and today jumped in and gleefully added his own dose of pious ad hominem attack, starting with “I can’t figure this one out. I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist.”

More careful and sophisticated than Degen, Sookman avoids any direct allegation that the four of us are linked to that video. Instead, he goes on a lengty attack of me. My decision to retweet an earlier tweet linking to the video gave Mr. Sookman the perfect opportunity to question my motivations and personality, and to call for my public condemnation. I suppose I should be getting used to that as well, but I’m still disappointed.

I came across the initial tweet two days ago rather accidentally. I don’t know the person who posted it and I don’t know the person who tweeted it. I watched the video several times and I am still bewildered by its oxymoronic messages. The person who produced the video might have thought that the suggestion that Hitler would endorse the opinions of Jewish legal experts is absurdly funny. Theoretically, however, this could be the worst kind of neo-anti-Semitic propaganda. Alternatively, the person who made the video didn’t pay much attention to the deeper meanings of her or his choices, or to how these choices might be perceived or taken advantage by others. I suppose it is the latter option but I really don’t know.

In any event, I retweeted it and mentioned my colleagues to direct their attention to it because our names were mentioned in the video. I also shared it with some other people whom I thought might be interested in viewing it. As an academic I’m used to being able to have civilized debates over controversial issues. In retrospect, I was naive.

I should have suspected that some people would devour my tweet and use it to ratchet up their ad hominem attacks, trying to produce a cynical baseless and tasteless Holocaust spin. I regret giving them the opportunity.

This is a new low in the debate. Hopefully, we have now hit rock bottom, and can return to discussing the real issues.

The sun has not set yet in some parts of Canada. It is still Yom Kippur somewhere, and the Ne’ila has not been said yet. It may not be too late to retract. Apology will be accepted.

Likewise, if anyone who followed my tweet might have been offended as a result I offer you my sincere apology.


Image by Ian Britton available here. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


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7 Comments on “When Blogs Cross a Line

  1. Ariel, I am pleased to hear that your only reason for circulating the video was to bring it to the attention of your colleagues who were also mentioned in the video and some other people who might have been interested. Perhaps a better medium for this purpose would have been an email, BBM, or direct message rather than retweeting it on two septerate public Twitter accounts. I, more than anyone, am glad to hear that going forward we are going to have civilized debates over controversial issues. Happy new year to you and your family.

  2. Unfortunately civilized debate all too often takes a back seat to hyperbole. Degen is the worst offender for this, but it sure doesn’t help when others legitimize it with their own support for his content.

    The Hitler video was hyperbole too, but it was so over the top, that any reasonable person should recognize it as humour. Perhaps not their kind of humour, but humour none the less. Degen’s post was far more sinister as it was actually intended to be serious, and people like Sookman took it as such.

    Mr. Sookman, you say you want civilized debate, but as long as you give legitimacy to Degen’s frequent ad hominem attacks, you should know full well, that you aren’t going to get it. Pity.

  3. Mr. Katz,

    I appreciate your admission that the uncontextualized retweet of this very offensive video was “naive.” I certainly would have expected greater care taken from someone in your position.

    That you choose to wrap your mea culpa in an attack on me is, sadly, typical of what I’ve come to expect from free culture advocates. Your fondness for the latin term ad hominem makes this attack somewhat hilariously ironic, but perhaps you meant it that way.

    I am not the only person who was offended by your tweet the other day. I have heard from quite a number of people who were dismayed by it, and it was the hurt feelings of those others that prompted my own blog posting. I will be sure to direct them here to find an apology. I’ll tell them to make sure and read to the very end of the posting.

  4. errr, Degen. I do believe the naivety was in not realizing that there were certain parties out there who would use it to make unseemly personal attacks. Not that there was anything innately wrong with tweeting the video itself.

    If you have an issue with these Hitler parody videos I suggest you stay off youtube.

    I think this might be a Hitler parody you could relate too.

    … or not.

  5. I have been trying to get to the crux of Mr Degen’s motivations for quite some time now, but alas, I have grown disinterested in his vitriol. His musings and diatribes aimed at his pet-term “free culture advocates” are becoming more and more irrelevant with every posting at his tired, inappurtenant blog. I think the resumes and actions of Geist, Knopf, Trowsow and now you Mr Katz, speak for themselves and far remove you distinguished gentlemen from the tired keyboard musings of Mr Degen and his petty mud-slinging.

    At least Barry’s motivations are clear; McCarthy clients give him his marching orders. As for Degen, perhaps he is simply a poor man’s version of Castle? Party-on John, party-on.

  6. You know, I am very sympathetic to what you are saying, and I was agreeing with you most of the know. But, when I got to the bottom — well, I think accusing others of “trying to produce a cynical baseless and tasteless Holocaust spin” is a bit rich. If you don’t want tasteless Holocaust spins, don’t link to Hitler videos. It’s really not that complicated.

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