Conspiracy theorist raises free speech debate: Canceled at the Cow, Jim Fetzer divides Northfield community

Northfield is generally a quiet community – a place where the year’s biggest event involves grown men running around dressed as cowboys. But the past several weeks have seen the town divided over the issue of free speech, accusations of anti-Semitism and political conspiracy theories. “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment” indeed.

The Contented Cow, the popular pub overlooking the Canon River, sponsored a series of community discussions in January. These discussions, called “CowTalks,” were meant to address relevant political topics and engage Northfield’s academic communities.

Norman Butler, owner of the Cow, described the talks as a chance to “discuss politics over a pint and help us cope with the winter.”

Controversy arose, however, when Butler invited Jim Fetzer to lecture at several of the CowTalks. Fetzer is a former professor at University of Minnesota-Duluth, but is most well known as a conspiracy theorist.

His theories range from the somewhat odd to what many consider blatantly offensive. He has argued that Paul Wellstone the Carleton professor turned progressive Congressman who died in a plane crash, was assassinated by Republicans, that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and that the U.S. and Israeli governments were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

He is also a Holocaust denier, stating that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was just in the thousands, and that no Jews were killed in the gas chambers. His denial is based on the argument that Zykon B, the chemical used by Nazis in the gas chambers, should have turned the dead bodies pink. Since there were no reports of pink bodies, according to Fetzer, the massacre could not have occurred.

The St. Olaf and Carleton communities reacted swiftly to Fetzer’s impending visit. Alan Rubenstein, a Carleton professor of philosophy, removed himself from a scheduled debate at the Cow with Fetzer and began circulating a petition protesting Fetzer’s presence in Northfield.

At St. Olaf, Professors Gordon Marino, Danny Muñoz-Hutchinson and Michael Fuerstein were the Cow’s most vocal critics. Marino, Muñoz-Hutchinson and others informed Butler via email of their opposition to Fetzer. Some Northfield residents notified Butler that they would no longer frequent his establishment.

“We definitely have fewer members of the community coming to the Cow,” Butler said.

In response to the disapproval, Butler apparently forwarded the professor’s emails to Fetzer, who posted them, along with an article entitled “The Abdication of Reason and Rationality in Northfield, MN” on a conspiracy theory Web site called Veterans Today. Despite its name, the site does not provide services for American military personnel. Instead, it largely serves as a platform for conspiracy theories, many of which contain thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. Many of the theories blame Jews and the state of Israel for catastrophic world events.

Due to Fetzer’s actions, Marino, Muñoz-Hutchinson and several Carleton professors received hate mail. The threats directed at the Carleton professor were serious enough that the FBI became involved. On Jan. 27, the Contented Cow canceled the talks, citing pressure from the community.

Fetzer sought another venue in Northfield, and the result was his Feb. 18 talk at the public library. He spoke to a packed room. The crowd was made up of a mix of Fetzer supporters and curious residents there to observe the spectacle.

His presentation, entitled “Free Speech and Terrorism: Sandy Hook and the Boston Bombing,” consisted largely of images pulled from YouTube videos. Fetzer, who was introduced by a librarian as an “American hero,” argued that these images proved that the Sandy Hook Massacre was a hoax and that no children died. He also explained that the Boston Marathon bombings were in fact a government ploy to restrict the Second Amendment Rights of American citizens. His presentation omitted his views on the Holocaust.

The reaction from the audience was mixed. Some nodded along at Fetzer’s claims and took notes on the presentation. By contrast, a group of Carleton students challenged Fetzer on a number of his claims.

Gordon Marino has been one of St. Olaf’s most vocal critics of the Cow’s decision to invite Fetzer to Northfield. He has repeatedly rebuffed attempts by Butler, Fetzer and others to frame this as a free speech issue.

“This is like someone claiming that if I weren’t willing to listen to arguments saying that slavery was a good thing, or didn’t happen, or that there was no genocide against Native Americans,” he said, “then I would be against free speech. Of course, I’m not claiming that you should not be allowed to say such outrageous and hurtful things – but I am saying that I don’t want to hang around with or fill the pockets of someone who provides a platform for such views.”

He argued that while Fetzer can hold any opinion that he so chooses, the right to free speech does not mean that the Northfield community must give him a platform.

Marino is something of an odd target for the anti-Zionist hate mail he received. Though a supporter of the Israeli state, he has written articles criticizing Israeli violence against Palestine, and says that he has lost friends due to his critiques of the Jewish state.

Marino was quick to point out St. Olaf’s history of opposition to anti-Semitism. Reidar Dittmann, Dittmann Hall’s namesake, was a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, imprisoned for resisting the Nazis in his native Norway.

“We have a history at St. Olaf of someone who was a witness to the Holocaust,” Marino said.

Norman Butler, the Contented Cow’s owner, sees this situation very differently from Marino. He views this as afreedom of speech issue and feels unfairly persecuted by the Northfield community.

“The boycott turned into a fatwa against the Cow,” he said.

He also defends his choice of Jim Fetzer as a lecturer. According to Butler, Fetzer’s views are supported by research and some of his theories are in fact truths that the establishment would rather suppress.

“If you want to know what the establishment’s point of view is, read the newspaper or turn on a television,” Butler said. “It’s refreshing to hear a different point of view that’s backed up by evidence.”

Butler claimed ignorance of Fetzer’s beliefs regarding the Holocaust.

“I knew nothing about that,” said Butler. “He wasn’t asked to speak on the Holocaust. For all I know he might wear women’s underwear. It doesn’t matter to me. I wasn’t asking him to talk about his underwear, or the Holocaust. I can’t believe the absurd reasoning people are using [to criticize the Cow].”

Butler went on to say that he agreed with Fetzer’s theory that the Holocaust’s scale was much smaller than reported. He said that he had no idea how many Jews died, but that “the scale of the Holocaust wasn’t as large as we’ve been persuaded.”

When asked directly whether he agreed with Fetzer, Butler said, “He could be wrong, but so what?”

This is a delicate issue, because the Constitutional right to free speech protects unpopular or wrongheaded opinions. For many in the Northfield community though, Fetzer’s views are a version of hate-speech. By denying the horror and scale of the Holocaust, deniers attempt to trivialize what is likely the most horrific event in human history. Marino, Muñoz-Hutchinson and many in the Carleton community believed that providing Fetzer with an opportunity to spread his theories was morally unacceptable.