The gist of it is this: a Master's student - Jenny Peto - wrote a thesis (one of those 150 or so page long essays that we don't expect anyone outside of our immediate family and committee will ever read) which - very basically - alleges that two "Holocaust education projects" instrumentalize the Holocaust in such a way as to "promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state." And someone blogged about it, which caught the attention of the National Post and Toronto Star, who promptly labeled her a self-loathing Jewish anti-Semite.
I don't want to talk about the thesis itself because I've only read the abstract. (That is, I don't know whether it is good or bad, though a friend of mine who has read it calls it "quite abysmal". And I'm saying that that's beside the point, anyway, for the purposes of what I want to cover here.) Hilariously, it's not clear that many of the commentators who have contributed to the discussion have actually given it a good look, much less read the whole thing themselves. Nor is it clear that they have any clear idea of the expectations that are attached to a Master's thesis - the demands for more interviews, research, etc. would turn this into the sort of massive, years-long project that no supervisor would approve and no MA student could complete.
The newest addition to this ongoing saga is a list of SESE's MA theses* that have been compiled by Werner Cohn, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. The list has been reprinted in the National Post, where Cohn claims that they are "so marred by political jargon and political preconceptions that they should never have been accepted." The theses, it seems, are "politicized" (whatever that means - what, in the study of sociology and equity, isn't politicized?), claims Cohn, and "consist of hate propaganda, possibly in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada."
(It behooves me, here, to point out Cohn's own possible biases and investment in the subject matter. If his personal website - which includes a lot of anti-Chomsky stuff, writings on Zionism, and writings on "Jews who hate Israel" - is any indication, he's probably one of the people who is politically implicated by Peto's thesis. This is
Cohn claims that the abstracts he lists (because he didn't read 16 of the 18 theses - like i said, no one does) are "propound political agendas rather than detached scholarship" and "the politics of all eighteen are of one sort and one sort only: radical leftism", and that they "are so politicized that – again on a prima facie basis – I would not accept them as scholarly contributions". (To his credit, I suppose, he admits that it's possible - if unlikely - that he would change his mind if he actually read the things.)
Having read the list myself, I have a few observations to share, too:
If, on the basis of the abstract alone, this stuff constitutes "political agendas" and "radical leftism", then Cohn has either never read anything in the fields of equity and identity politics or else thinks that the fields themselves are not worthy of his attention. Some of the abstracts are pretty innocuous, except for the appearance of terms like "anti-racist", "Canadian colonialism", and the "white" Canadian nation-state. And regardless, this is not somehow a unique cross-section - this is typical of the work being done right now in sociology, race, and/or gender studies. My sense is that his problem is with the discipline, from which he appears to be professionally and philosophically detached. (And not "detached" in the somewhat problematic sense that one can ever be politically detached from necessarily politicized work, but "detached" in the sense of "he just doesn't know.") The National Post might as well have asked a mathematician to weigh-in.
Cohn uses the term "Neo-Marxist" dismissively on another blog, and I think it's a telling insult. Based on that article and the one in the globe - where he hides his own politics under the guise of "objectivity in scholarship" and "scholarly merit" (which he doesn't define - presumably, it is obvious to people like himself, who are ostensibly, if disingenuously, without politics) - my guess is that what Cohn is actually lamenting is his own obsolescence. At the risk of sounding too dismissive myself, Cohn's first published article is now 60 years old - presumably, he is made anxious by MA theses employing post-colonial and anti-racist frameworks that critique and reject what was once canon. That canon being the pro-Western, pro-white, masculinist, heterosexist sociological corpus that Cohn was trained with and - again, presumably - has contributed to. It doesn't matter what they were actually, specifically saying - he was probably ready to dismiss them simply for committing this sin.
Cohn also criticizes OISE for the "political uniformity" of its theses, adding that "no thesis that, for instance, urged a conservative viewpoint, or a Christian one, or, Heaven forbid, Zionism". But this is a red herring if I've ever seen one - those "viewpoints" aren't there simply because they're not up to the task. Imagine a classically liberal - ie. conservative, in popular parlance - analysis of gendered microinequities in the workplace. Could it even admit the possibility? How would it go about collecting data in any meaningful way? What kind of horribly reductive and limited vocabulary would it be forced to draw on? Could it even account for the possibility of systemic discrimination? Just what the hell would that look like? (You might counter with the suggestion that a conservative thesis would challenge the whole idea of microinequities. In which case, frankly, it shows its uselessness that much faster.)
[* Victoria's MA thesis isn't among them, though the temporal scope of his selections aren't clear, and so it's possible that she just fell outside his time-frame.]