Organic yohurt, tofu - and neo-Nazi nutbars?
Harvest Whole Foods is more than a store – it’s the hub of a community. Situated at the leafy, liberal end of Richmond Road, a few minutes’ stroll from the ostentatiously scruffy Grey Lynn Community Gardens, the large retail arm of the organic-only Huckleberry Farms Company caters to a distinct set of inner-city subcultures. The flyers and brochures left near the doors of Harvest Whole Foods reveal some of the social, political, and spiritual features of the milieu the store attracts – alongside advertisements for ‘Advanced Yogic Sex’, one finds calling cards for organisations like Greenpeace and Save Animals from Exploitation, and appeals for donations to help emancipate Turkish dancing bears.
I have been paying occasional visits to Harvest Whole Foods ever since I met my beloved civil union partner, Skyler. Like many of the store’s most enthusiastic customers, Skyler considers herself a part of the amorphous but strong ‘green alternative’ community represented by those leaflets beside the doors. I blame her parents, who are Steiner teachers and veterans of the folk music scene of the sixties. They deprived the poor girl of meat (it was murder), plastic toys (dangerous chemicals), and Dr Who (too many cheap scary BBC monsters) during her formative years.
Luckily for me, the excellent Time Out bookshop is located across the road from Harvest Whole Foods, and I’m normally able to make my excuses and leave Skyler to do the shopping after putting a token organic banana in our basket. A couple of weeks ago, though, I found myself morbidly attracted to Harvest Whole Food’s magazine rack. I’d always avoided looking too closely at the rack before – I was afraid that it might contain cooking magazines that Skyler would insist on buying for me, in the hope of broadening my repertoire of dishes beyond burnt bangers and mash and greasy burgers.
I was intrigued, though, when I realised that the only periodical on the rack that covered current events and politics was Uncensored, the magazine founded by the well-known pornographer Steve Crow. The genius behind Boobs on Bikes offloaded Uncensored a year or so ago, and the magazine is currently published by a collective based in Point Chevalier. Uncensored is stocked by a number of newsagents and bookshops around Auckland, but in these outlets it is only one of many periodicals devoted to current events and politics that are offered for sale. The fact that Uncensored was the only political periodical at Harvest Whole Foods suggested, to me at least, that the proprietors regarded it as more interesting than others, or at least as more in line with the philosophy of Harvest Whole Foods than others. The location of the magazine rack in the middle of Harvest Whole Foods and the placement of Uncensored at eye-level on the rack meant that most visitors to the store must have seen it.
I duly added a copy of the latest issue of Uncensored to Skyler’s basket. I’d never actually bothered to open the magazine before, and I was soon dismayed to see that many of the contributors appear to believe that a conspiracy of Jews controls world events, and is responsible for disasters like the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. The cover of the magazine presented President Obama as the tool of a Jewish conspiracy; an article called 'The Unspeakable Truth of 9/11' insisted that the Israeli spy agency Mossad orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre; and a piece called 'The Real Agenda behind the Monetary Crisis' claimed that the world's media is 'Jewish-occupied' and that Jews control the American Federal Reserve.
Uncensored appeared to have an obsession with Jews: certainly, the magazine's writers missed no opportunity to slip anti-semitic language into their texts. The anti-semitism could be pathetically petty, as well as grandioisely paranoid: in one article, for instance, Monica Lewinsky was described as Bill Clinton's 'chunky Jewish girlfriend'. A quick internet search revealed that the author of that piece, one Christopher Bollyn, writes for an American publication called the Barnes Review, which regularly praises Hitler and denies that the Holocaust ever took place. Other contributors seemed to have similarly impeccable pedigrees. More disturbingly, perhaps, Uncensored also featured work by local members of the far right.
here). Doutre denies the Holocaust, maintains close ties with notorious Kiwi neo-Nazi Kerry Bolton, and is a leading member of the One New Zealand Foundation, whose leader Ross Baker is fond of making statements like ‘thank God I’m not a Maori’.
Harvest Whole Foods, with its organic food and its rhetoric about the environment, likes to represent itself as an 'alternative' to the cultural mainstream of New Zealand. But not everything that poses as 'alternative' is necessarily good. Uncensored certainly presents 'alternative', minority views of events like the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, and New Zealand history, but this does not mean it contributes anything useful to discussions about those subjects.
After wading all the way through Uncensored, I decided to e mail Dave Spalter, the chief executive of Huckleberry Farms, the company that supplies and runs Harvest Whole Foods and several similar shops around the country. I pointed Spalter in the direction of the article I wrote about Martin Doutre and his circle for the Scoop Review of Books last year, and the lengthy, vitriolic, and very revealing debate the piece had prompted.
In a matter of hours of Spalter replied. He said that he had already decided to stop stocking Uncensored, and that my e mail had reinforced his decision. Spalter said that he had ‘never looked’ at Uncensored properly until very recently, but that he was now aware that it was ‘a disgraceful and harmful publication’ that did not deserve any favours. Spalter revealed that he is Jewish, and admitted that he was ‘a little embarrassed’ that it had taken him ‘until now to discover the content of the magazine’. Spalter did not explain how Uncensored began receiving such favourable treatment at Harvest Whole Foods in the first place.
Harvest Whole Foods’ decision to dump Uncensored might seem like a no-brainer, but it raises some interesting questions about censorship, responsibility, and the power of retailers. As I read Spalter’s e mail, I began to wonder whether I had made a mistake in contacting him. Why had I accepted that a business owner had the right to decide what his customers read, by directing my concerns about Uncensored to him, and not to the customers themselves? Why had I expected moral leadership from a man who made punters pay ridiculous sums of money for tiny tubes of funny-smelling shampoo and organic tampons? And wasn’t I becoming a censor, by reinforcing Spalter‘s decision to remove Uncensored from his store?
Although I’m happy that the Jew-baiters and Maori-bashers in Uncensored will no longer get most favoured magazine status at Harvest Whole Foods, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that retailers should be the arbiters of what the public can and can’t read. I think that publications reflecting the full range of political thought, from the far left to the swampy centre to the extreme right, should be stocked by bookshops and newsagents. I wouldn’t be in favour of attempts to remove Uncensored from NZ Post shops or Borders Bookshop or Magazinno. At Harvest Whole Foods, though, Uncensored was the only political publication on display, and its mere presence seemed like an endorsement. I think that, instead of removing Uncensored, Dave Spalter might have legitimately decided to complement it with a range of other journals – journals from the sane parts of the right, as well as from the left – whose contents contradict the paranoid confabulations of Doutre, Bollyn, and co.
Doutre and his co-thinkers tend to conflate the defence of critical standards, the making of formal complaints, and outright censorship, but it is important for us to understand the difference between these measures. During the recent debate at the Scoop Review of Books, Doutre repeatedly complained of being the target of ‘witch hunts’ and ‘persecution’. With a certain unconscious irony, Doutre segued from a defence of Holocaust denier David Irving to the claim that I was a ‘bellowing fascist’ because I called on editors not to embarrass themselves by publishing his exercises in pseudo-history. Suggestions that Doutre might be the subject of complaints to the Press Council and the Race Relations Conciliator only confirmed him in his beliefs that his critics were ‘Marxist control freaks’ who wanted to consign him to a gulag somewhere in the wastes of Waiouru.
Criticism is not censorship. It is not censorious of me to suggest that Doutre’s claims that New Zealand was once inhabited by greenstone-carving leprechauns do not meet the standards set by serious scholars of our history, and therefore don’t belong in journals that want to discuss our history in a serious way.
Nor is there anything repressive in suggesting that Doutre and other contributors to magazines like Uncensored would be fair game for the Press Council and the Race Relations Conciliator’s office. The Press Council is a non-governmental body which allows journalists to reprimand their peers; the Race Relations Conciliator is on the public payroll, but he is just as independent of elected politicians as the Ombudsman. Neither the Race Relations Conciliator nor the Press Council has the power to ban a publication or silence an author. What both can do very effectively is damage the credibility of a writer or publication, by exposing rampant mendacity.
I’m currently part of a small group which is investigating the possibility of making a formal complaint against Doutre and some of his publishers to the Press Council. We’ll keep you posted.