Author: Jonathan Kay

Portrait of the Artist as a False Accuser

In 1976 and 1977, New York City was terrorized by one of America’s most infamous serial killers. Before being captured in front of his Yonkers home, David Berkowitz killed six victims, and wounded seven others. Berkowitz claimed he was following the orders of his neighbour’s dog, whom he described as being connected to a demonic figure named Sam. “I am a monster,” Berkowitz wrote in one of the notes he left for police. “I am the ‘Son of Sam.’” Berkowitz was sentenced to six life sentences, and remains in jail to this day. His legacy includes not only the horrific crimes he committed, but also a special kind of legislation inspired by fears that the killer would sell his lurid and sensational story to a publisher or studio. The “Son of Sam” law created by New York State in 1977, which exists in modified form to this day, required that revenues from a criminal’s descriptions of his crimes be deposited in escrow and disbursed to his victims. And while Berkowitz’s crimes were especially horrific, these …

As a Toronto Mob Brays, David Frum and Steve Bannon Joust over Populism’s Split Soul

It’s always gratifying when real life actors conspire to validate claims that an author makes in the abstract realm. Thus did I experience a blush of pundit’s pride upon observing the protestors who assembled in downtown Toronto in advance of Steve Bannon’s Munk Debate with David Frum on Friday night. Just days before, I had noted progressives’ now-epidemic habit of labeling everyone they dislike as a—real, not figurative—Nazi. And now, just days later, here I was, in a security line outside Roy Thomson Hall, surrounded by hundreds of protestors declaring Bannon to be a Nazi, and we audience members to be on moral par with Hitler’s followers. Some of the placards betrayed signs of haste—including signs held up by a couple that read, “Fuck You Nazis,” and “Nazis, Get Fucked,” on matching sides of a grease-stained pizza box. But the sentiment came through loud and clear: It’s 1933. Which side are you on? Fortunately, the scene inside the debate hall—where 2,800 audience members had assembled to see Frum and Bannon debate the resolution, “The future …

Nazis: A Modern Field Guide

In the Fall of 1943, as American troops were working their way northward through Italy, U.S. commanders were doing their best to address a basic problem of military intelligence: troops in the field couldn’t tell different kinds of German troops and weapons apart. This could have life or death consequences: An American squad armed with a bazooka could stand fast against a thinly armoured halftrack, but had little chance of harming the heaviest German tanks. Likewise, GIs had to be far more careful when fighting elite German infantry units than with the conscripts and armed prisoners from the eastern front that the Wehrmacht threw into the field as the conflict wore on. And so the U.S. War Department produced a 400-page book called Handbook on German Military Forces, with the purpose of giving officers and enlisted men “a better understanding of their principal enemy.” A set of colour plates within the book show German soldiers in a variety of uniform styles and poses, from the Continental uniform style seen in most war movies, to tropical …

Fight the Scourge of Antisemitism—but Take Hope from Pittsburgh’s Righteous Gentiles

There are some hate criminals whose motives are well-disguised behind reams of obscure or contradictory web ramblings. Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old suspect in Saturday’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, would not fit in that category. Before allegedly killing 11 people in and around the Tree of Life, he declared online that “Jews are the children of Satan.” He also claimed the Holocaust was a lie, and that “it’s the filthy EVIL Jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!” Like James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged Charlottesville car-attack killer, and Cesar Sayoc, the hate-addled bodybuilder and status hound who’s been charged with mailing pipe bombs to Democrats this month, Bowers was a confused, pathetic failure looking to blame his problems on others. But in the age of Trump, it’s hard not to suspect that a seemingly deranged hate criminal is actually channeling something more universal than his own inner demons. In a plaintive Washington Post column entitled What Is Happening To Our Country?, Max Boot argues that while “extremism has been present in America for a …

The Scandal at UBC Keeps Growing—but No One Has Been Held Accountable

Three years ago, the University of British Columbia suspended novelist Steven Galloway, who then chaired UBC’s creative writing program, following explosive allegations that he had sexually assaulted a UBC student. In response, a group of Canadian writers signed on to a movement called UBC Accountable, which highlighted the lack of due process in the proceedings against Galloway. While some members of the Canadian literary community vilified #ubcaccountable as an insult to rape victims, the movement was vindicated when the full facts of Galloway’s case became widely known. Specifically, an internal investigation by a retired provincial supreme court judge concluded that Galloway hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone. Her report, whose contents were detailed in an exhaustive Quillette investigative report, suggested that the principal complainants were either confused or malicious fantabulists. Earlier this year, the Vancouver-based university was required to pay Galloway $167,000 in the wake of statements by UBC officials that violated the former professor’s privacy rights and, as Galloway argued, caused “irreparable reputational damage and financial loss.” Yet despite all this, the university still hasn’t fulfilled the …

Amidst the YouTube Junkies of MythCon, I Witnessed a New Kind of Radical Centrism

Late Saturday afternoon, police ordered the evacuation of the historic Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee because of a bomb threat. Along with hundreds of other MythCon attendees, I filed out in orderly fashion. While most of the crowd milled around City Hall, I went up to my hotel room at the neighbouring Intercontinental. But that building, too, was evacuated by police, because it sits adjacent to the Pabst. Across the street, a bride in white shuffled around nervously with her family. Her wedding reception was scheduled to begin shortly in the Intercontinental ballroom. These are the ordinary people who suffer when idiots phone in bomb threats. Eventually, we were all let back into the Pabst, and our conference resumed, amidst much gossip about what had motivated the bomb hoax. It says a lot about the ideologically heterodox nature of MythCon—a secular humanist and atheist meet-up organized by self-described “mythicists” seeking “to promote dialogue about culture, religion and freedom of thought”—that no one could be quite sure. The headliner was a popular YouTuber named Sargon of …

When Censorship Is Crowdsourced

Editor’s note: The text that follows is adapted from a speech delivered recently by the author to the Montreal Press Club.  On the op-ed page of The New York Times, former Central Intelligence Agency general counsel Jeffrey Smith recently argued that Donald Trump’s decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan “violated Mr. Brennan’s First Amendment right to speak freely.” It’s an intriguing thesis. And, being a former lawyer who once wrote long law school essays about constitutional freedoms, I read it with keen interest. But I also felt a twinge of nostalgia as I parsed Smith’s lawyerly arguments. Notwithstanding the nature of Mr. Trump’s treatment of Mr. Brennan, the gravest threats to free speech in democratic countries now have little or nothing to do with government action (which is what Constitutions serve to restrain). And with few exceptions, public officials now sit as bystanders to the fight over who can say what. Last month, Facebook, Apple and Google deleted gigabytes of video, audio and text content from Alex Jones’ Infowars …

Hashtags and Terror Narratives in Toronto

On April 15, 2013, hours after the Tsarnaev brothers set off explosives at the Boston Marathon, the #bostonstrong hashtag went viral on Twitter. A week later, at the first home Red Sox game following the tragedy, the Fenway Park public announcer declared, “We are one. We are strong. We are Boston. We are Boston strong.” Since then, the same meme has been adopted by numerous other cities in the wake of local tragedies—including my own, Toronto, which proclaimed itself #TorontoStrong following a deadly van attack that took 10 lives in April. The idea that communities become stronger in the wake of mass murder is attractive. And sometimes, it’s even true—because outside threats stimulate a spirit of collective defiance and solidarity. But many acts of mass murder are perpetrated by mentally ill killers who have no political motive. In these cases, tragedies can actually widen fissures within society, because different factions co-opt the crime to advance their own agendas. Collective strength can exist only when citizens have a sense of common purpose. On Sunday, Toronto suffered …

‘Grope-gate’ and #MeToo’s Crisis of Legitimacy

In both Canada and the United States, groping scandals have opened a window into the hypocrisies that infect national politics. American Christian voters may claim to support politicians who embody family values. But in 2016, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who stood accused of groping women “like an octopus,” and who was caught on tape bragging about doing so. In Canada, on the other hand, the more-feminist-than-thou prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has spent the first days of summer issuing contradictory explanations of a recently publicized encounter he had with a female journalist at an August 2000 music festival in British Columbia. The journalist called what happened “groping.” Though no one has any idea what body part was touched, or in what way, Trudeau reportedly felt the need to apologize to the woman at the time. But in recent days, the Prime Minister has changed his story. He now claims either not to remember the details of the encounter, or to suggest that the truth of the matter is unknowable …