Dr. David Bernans is an unassuming man with more than a decade’s worth of involvement in student activism and student politics in general. A few years back he wrote a piece of historical fiction, North of 9/11, recounting some of his personal experiences dealing with Concordia University security practices in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and all the irrationality, absurdity and insanity that has manifested itself in countless ways over the past decade.
The rallying cry of “9/11 Changed Everything”, typical of the Tea Party penchant for minimalist deepities (thanks to Daniel Dennett for nailing that idea) is unfortunately not merely a befuddled expression, but also a kind of sick state-of-mind. Perennial fear, and every John Q middle-manager and white-collar schlock finding a newfound purpose in life by making security and anti-terrorism their personal affair. Perhaps we were spared the brunt of the 9/11 tidal wave, but at the very least on campuses here at home and across the nation, a new mood was established, and Concordia would become a Made-in-Canada example-sans-pareil of the new corporate university’s response to student politics and activism in the post-9/11 world. I can imagine another expression, “the gloves are coming off” repeated with renewed vigour in university boardrooms. One of the pillars of our liberal democracy, a â€˜free’ and public post-secondary education system, whose institutions are renowned as bastions of free thought and expression, would become a new ground-zero for illegal, unethical and ultimately state-sponsored political terrorism and suppression. The new corporate university, directed from its boardroom by the titans of industry, finance and government, would do its part in stamping out internal dissent and anyone, though students in particular, who threatened the corporate image of the institution. All of a sudden Mr. Bernans found himself persona non-grata in the institution he worked so hard to improve. There’s nothing like altruism and the open-support of potentially unpopular causes to get the attention of corporate PR hacks and university lawyers.
I had the chance to speak with the now Dr. Bernans at the book-launch of the new electronic (e-book) version of North of 9/11, originally published in 2006. The reading to a small group was held at Concordia’s cooperative bookstore, an initiative of progressive students that goes back quite a ways. Though I’ve now graduated from the institution, I can remember the Co-op, as its commonly known, was typically the host of anti-frosh activities designed to get the focus back on learning and away from mind-crushing alcohol-fueled hangovers. So I was surprised to see Dr. Bernans’ book reading was part of the regular Concordia Student Union frosh-week roster. Inside, I met up with new CSU President Lex Gill and put two-and-two together. I had forgotten about the progressive victory on campus earlier this year, when the students finally de-throned the university-approved political dynasty they had created in the wake of the Netanyahu Riots of 2002. Thus, the reading made a lot more sense, though its venue the Co-op is apparently still considered to be â€˜outside’ Concordia territory, and this in turn is a residual effect of the university’s attempt to â€˜accommodate student activists’ in the same way â€˜free-speech cages’ accommodated dissenters at any political gathering in the United States over the last decade.
North of 9/11 was to be read publically for the first time in 2006. The book does not portray Concordia University in a positive light and for good reason. The Netanyahu Riot was entirely preventable, and instead of making an example of it to act as a catalyst for better relations and a renewed effort at political dialogue on campus, it was instead â€˜utilized’ by the university administration as a casus belli to instigate an unwinnable low-intensity conflict against student activists. Bernans was spied on by goons hired by university administrator Michael di Grappa, and elements of the administration conspired to buy themselves an election and a means to direct control of student activities through the CSU. I would know, I saw it happen in the Spring of 2005, 2006 etc. As Bernans puts it, the administration found â€˜ass-kissing CV-padders’ to become the new face of the student body, and then systematically went after every potential threat.
The book documents the expulsions and suspensions of students for illegitimate reasons, the overt corruption of university administrators and security personnel, and the actions of secret committees with odd-sounding names. It’s the story of deep personal bonds forged during these exceptionally hard times, and the fundamental insecurity of the modern corporate university, which seems to be thoroughly incapable of dealing with a politically active student body. Maybe things are going to change this year with the â€˜left’ side of Concordia student politics back in the saddle, holding the reigns of power, or whatever power’s left. We’ll have to wait and see about that one.
In the meantime I’d highly recommend checking out the book if you’re not familiar with Concordia history post-9/11. It’s a fascinating subject, and Dr. Bernans has been able to weave a good story together with scenes inspired by his own experiences, into a solid representation of that troublesome time. Unfortunately, as Dr. Bernans was quick to point out, in many ways the student body of today is still dealing with the shadow of 9/11 and the Netanyahu Riots, the implications of which have manifested themselves with heightened campus (in)security, interference in student governance and an aggressive administration. The victory for campus progressives and activists a few months ago was a major upset, but this doubtless means the university administration will take an overtly hostile tone with the students.
Why does it always feel like we’re taking one step forward and two steps back?