By Frank Moher
I knew when I submitted my last book review to The National Post that it might not be published. What I didn’t expect was that the Post would publish it, and then unpublish it.
The review was of a book of essays, What the Furies Bring, by Canadian poet Kenneth Sherman. Doesn’t sound like hot-button material, you say? Well, Sherman has pegged his book to 9/11, and that, of course, remains combustible — especially if you are of the opinion that the official explanation for the events of that day remains, er, incomplete.
The Post put my review on its website at 7:30 pm on December 18th. Of course, it might have been something less sensitive that caused them to remove it sometime the next day. Sherman’s book is mostly about literature, and hence my review was too. Maybe some Mallermé-lover on staff didn’t like the fact that the book is cool towards the poet and thought, “I’m not putting up with this aesthete-bashing any longer!” But somehow I don’t think so.
No, I expect what caused someone to press the delete button were these two paragraphs:
His reading of 9/11 itself, however, is thoroughly conventional. In “Amis’s Atta” he deals with the British writer’s collection of short stories and essays The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom. Amis portrays Muhammad Atta, who, we are told, flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, as a death-bent fanatic, and Sherman is happy to echo him. “After all,” Sherman writes, “those sons of militant Islam who crashed the twin towers were operating from a skewed sense of manhood, and their morality was topsy-turvy: Death is good; Life (World/Manhattan) is evil.”
The problem with received wisdom, though, is that it is sometimes wrong, or premature, or incomplete. Psychoanalyzing the hijackers without also assaying those who had sufficient foreknowledge of the attacks to profit from them on the stock market is to miss half the meaning of the event. But they don’t appear in Sherman’s reading, and so they don’t appear in his essays. He writes that John Updike’s novel Terrorist “addresses the essential questions that thinking Americans posed after 9/11. Is there truth in the fundamentalist’s assertion that materialist America has poisoned itself with trivia? Has America justly incurred the wrath of the globe’s unfortunate by becoming an exploitive, soulless nation?” But this is a sentimental explanation for 9/11, handed down by the Bush administration at the time – “They hate our freedoms” – and it doesn’t sit on Sherman’s book any better than it did on Updike’s.
The Post might have been able to tolerate that note of doubt about Atta — after all, we are told he piloted Flight 11, right? Nothing wrong with saying so, right? They might even have gritted their teeth and put up with my bit of Bush-bashing. After all, he’s gone now, right? No need to keep defending him, right?
But that bit about the stock trades? Not so much.
Now, I was quite careful about what I wrote. There’s an immense amount of speculation around 9/11, and most of it remains just that — speculation. But the fact that there was extraordinary trading on the stocks of American and United Airlines in the weeks prior to the attacks — up to 100 times the usual volume — is acknowledged even in the 9/11 Commission Report. The trading was in the form of “put options,” which are taken in anticipation of a stock’s price dropping. The more it drops, the more money is made. The Commission adopted a “We checked into it, nothing to see here, move along now” approach to the matter, but a scholarly, peer-reviewed article published in 2006 noted that the chances of such trading happening randomly are 1%. That’s good enough for me. Of course, it might not be good enough for the Post, but the place to deal with that would have been during the editorial process, before publication. Instead, I got a nice note of praise from my editor, and that was that.
It’s a little hard for me to cry censorship because the review did appear that same day in the print edition of the paper. But the Post‘s behaviour suggests that they would have removed it from there, too, were newsprint as ephemeral as the Web. The fate of one little book review may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but the excision does beg the question: what else is the Post leaving out of its pages? And why?
I’ve told them I won’t be writing for them anymore, which ends a relationship of 11 years, going back to the earliest days of the paper. I’ve enjoyed it, but I don’t do loyalty tests. But I do have some questions for them. (Mark Medley, co-editor of the Post‘s online Books section, told me before Christmas that he was looking into what happened, but the rest has been silence.) They are: Who removed the review? Were they told to do so? If so, by who? And, regardless, why was it removed?
I’ll let you know if they have anything to say. Or, of course, they can always use the Comments section below to reply. I promise not to delete it.
Meantime, I have posted the review in backofthebook’s Arts & Books section. And if you’d like to see the web page that The National Post would rather you didn’t, I’ve posted it here (PDF). Because if there’s one thing the Internet has taught us, it’s that if you want to suppress information, you’d better do it before you publish it.