UPDATE: On Tuesday, Jan. 27, Contented Cow owner Norman Butler posted the following comment on the original "Northfield News" story regarding the "Cow Talks" controversy over author and speaker Jim Fetzer's appearances in Northfied—"Cow Talks are hereby canceled. Our livelihood is threatened. Our Staff is harassed. Our regulars worried."
Butler declined to give additional comments or elaborate on his statement at this time.
Below is the original Northfield News story, as posted on Tuesday, Jan 20.
As part of its politically leaning “Cow Talks” event series, The Contended Cow is slated to host monthly appearances by controversial author and speaker Jim Fetzer, ranging on topics like 9/11, JFK’s assassination, Paul Wellstone’s plane crash and the Sandy Hook school shooting.
A “Distinguished McKnight University Professor Emeritus” from the University of Minnesota Duluth, Fetzer has also published 29 books and is a regular contributor to the Veteran’s Today website.
The Cow, and its proprietor Norman Butler, recently came under fire from concerned community members once word of Fetzer’s scheduled appearances spread. Fetzer himself addressed the concern directly with a post on Veteran’s Today entitled “The Abdication of Reason and Rationality in Northfield, MN.”
Fetzer’s essay includes screen captures of emails sent from Northfield community members to Butler, expressing their disbelief and concern that he would host such a polarizing figure at his establishment. The email addresses and full names of the community members have been left intact, leading to several of those individuals receiving hateful, or in some cases, threatening email responses from Fetzer’s supporters among the Veteran’s Today readership.
St. Olaf College professor Gordon Marino first heard of Fetzer’s appearances from a colleague, who told him that The Cow was bringing in a “Holocaust denier” to speak. Marino then emailed Butler to ask if that was true. Butler’s response was simply that Fetzer is “not a Holocaust denier.”
Marino’s email is one of many that turned up on the Veteran’s Today entry, and since that was published on Jan. 17, he said he’s received three very hateful emails from people.
“(Butler) had no right to forward my email to Fetzer,” Marino said.
Marino said that to him, denial of the Holocaust is offensive.
“Some people say that any publicity is good, but I can’t imagine why (Butler) would do this,” he said.
Carleton College professor Louis Newman also contacted Butler voicing his disappointment. Like Marino, his email to Butler found its way to Fetzer and ended up published in the piece on Veteran’s Today. Newman said that he respects the rights of people to hold and discuss unpopular views, as well as the rights of people like Butler to invite such people to share those views in public.
“But some views, particularly those that vilify entire groups of people, are based on patent lies or that fly in the face of established historical facts as well as common sense do not deserve our attention, much less our endorsement,” Newman said. “Customers also have rights, including the right to direct their business away from people who traffic in hateful speech. That is a right that I, for one, intend to exercise.”
In his defense
As the owner of The Contented Cow, Butler said that he did not expect this kind of reaction from the community, and that the organization of a boycott of his establishments is a fact he finds unpleasant and most disturbing as a business owner.
“Small businesses do not have tenure,” Butler said. “When mud is thrown, it tends to stick.”
Butler conceded that the boycott, to some extent, is working already, noting that he has had a few bands cancel performances already.
On Tuesday, The Cow’s “pub quiz” host Jessica Peterson White announced that she had plans to relocate the quiz to another venue.
“I cannot implicitly support Fetzer’s rhetoric,” she said, noting that because of these scheduled talks, she has been made aware of many community members that no longer feel welcome at The Cow.
Butler’s wife, Diane Burry, stressed that The Cow is, in fact, welcoming to all: men, women, gay, straight, of all races, of all faiths, from all countries. In a position statement offered in the wake of the controversy surrounding Fetzer’s appearance, she said that “Cow Talks” is a series of informed, civil, yet passionate debates on a variety of issues.
Burry said that unfortunately, the discussion of these issues doesn’t seem to matter anymore. All that seems to matter is who is saying it, she noted.
“Fetzer is critical of the Israeli government,” Burry said. “Does that make him an anti-Semite? No. He is critical of the U.S. government. Does that make him a traitor? No. People may not accept many of his conclusions from his research, but we (The Cow) are willing to let him speak. People can come and challenge him with questions at the end of his presentation, or not come at all.”
Burry also stated that as news of Fetzer’s appearances spread throughout Northfield, The Cow itself was “assumed to be and accused” of being anti-Semitic and supporting of hate speech, both of which, she said, are not true.
Butler himself has an avid interest in conspiracy theories.
“If you want to know the official story on an event like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, turn on the television or open any popular media,” he said. “But there’s an enormous amount of material on the Internet that provides strong evidence suggesting alternate theories.”
On the reason Butler forwarded the emails from concerned community members to Fetzer, he said that Fetzer was in a much better position to address those people directly. Butler did note that he was not aware those emails were going to be published in the Veteran’s Today piece.
Butler said that it got to the point where he considered canceling all of Fetzer’s events.
“I got a second wind,” he said, “and I thought canceling would not be right, or fair, or proper. I don’t know why people are getting so bent out of shape.”
Fetzer himself said that he was floored by the reaction of the Northfield community to his scheduled visits.
“Northfield has a good reputation — it has two liberal arts colleges. I thought the reaction would be the exact opposite,” he said, adding that he was taken aback by the hostility. “People want to trash you using special pleading. Many are misreporting my position on things and are trading in rumors and speculation.”
Fetzer said that Butler is a good citizen for undertaking a project like this. One he says is a benefit to everyone. He had no expectation that it would turn out to be so controversial, he said. He noted that he usually gets a “powerful, positive response” from his lectures.
“I don’t mind people disagreeing with me,” Fetzer said. “But I think that it’s worth listening to the results of research from a professional scholar.”
Fetzer’s belief is that we are entitled to know the truth of our own history.
“Our government lies to us all the time,” he said emphatically.
Regarding the publishing of Northfield community members’ email addresses in his Veteran’s Today article, Fetzer said at the time that it was something that he just didn’t think about. On Tuesday, Fetzer updated his article and removed the email addresses from the screen captures.
In the wake of the controversy, Fetzer said he and Butler agreed to change the format of the events so that rather than a lecture, it would be a debate, with Fetzer given an hour to discuss his belief and evidence on the topic, then a half hour given to a challenger to respond.
“Those that I think have it wrong are entitled to say that,” he said, adding that someone should be able to attack the weakest parts of his arguments in 30 minutes.
Right now, Fetzer said the debate is a “standing invitation” and that no one in the community has accepted the challenge.
“I’m completely open to all of this,” Fetzer stated. “I only care about the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If I have said something wrong, I want to know it so I can correct it. I want to work this out so the events are acceptable to even my most severe critics.”
Fetzer’s first debate is schedule for Feb. 19, where he will be discussing the Sandy Hook shootings.