The Bully Pulpit

An Open Letter to Brandeis University

Dear Brandeis University,

As one of the now thousands of voices to pipe up in this discussion, I want to express support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali and condemn the recent attempts to minimize such a towering and indispensable figure. The choice to revoke Ali’s honorary degree in Social Justice is not simply an appalling precedent to set in regards to academic free speech; it is a capitulation to the false and pernicious belief that in a free and multi-cultural society, any group may immunize itself from offense. In yielding to a 6,000-signature petition, you rob many more thousands of the opportunity to engage in a much-needed dialogue about Islam and women. The decision to bow to the atavistic urges of those few who would prefer to plug their ears and hum only affirms the ludicrous idea that feelings about what is most important in our lives may replace the adult imperative to think.

It is worth recollecting a pertinent anecdote:

In the days following Dr. Johnson’s compilation and publication of the first English dictionary, socialites around London were eager to fete the now famous lexicographer. There is an accompanying story from this period – probably too good to be true – which describes how, at a dinner party, a group of distinguished women approached their guest of honor. “Dr. Johnson,” said the women, “we would like to congratulate you for not including any profane words in your dictionary.” Johnson, ever tactful, replied, “Ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look them up.”

This rejoinder reveals much about the roots of the gag-reflex — this instinct to suppress or silence, even if it means going fishing for stray garbage in an ocean of words. There will always be some people who positively want to be offended. It is an easy impulse to understand. Offense-taking is not just a way to shut up ideological adversaries, and thus painlessly shirk the burden to support your views; it is also a way to exhibit faux moral superiority. Yes, I am so pure that I won’t even go there.

And several centuries later, those pious few now have troves much larger than Dr. Johnson’s dictionary to rifle through, as a few keystrokes can unfurl a million Google results of interviews, books, articles, and essays which may then be conveniently quoted out of context and used to suppress provocative discourse. Anyone can do this: unlike argumentation, it takes no skill. In fact, Brandeis University, it is precisely what I set out to do as I glanced over your register of vaunted honorary degree recipients, looking for names to smear. I had neither the time nor attention to delve deeper into more of these luminaries, though two in particular immediately caught my eye.

The first is Tony Kushner, an immensely talented writer who has produced several second-rate movies and one of the best plays of the past half-century. He is also a figure who has repeatedly sneered at the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, treating as risible an idea that many modern Jews see as sacrosanct. Surely if any ethnic or religious group deserves protection from the barbs of hateful speech, it is the Jews. Yet despite some mild protest, Kushner was (rightly) awarded his honorary degree, using the moment to express solidarity with the Jewish people, support for Israel’s right to existence, and regret that his criticisms were “grossly mischaracterized.” Thus, from the depths of a contentious argument arose a platform for clarification and compromise. This is the First Amendment at work.

The second name is Leon Wieseltier, a critic and writer I have not read extensively but follow (and not just because his ice-white hair, like Graydon Carter’s, has something of the appearance of a fright wig). Wieseltier has lampooned the persecution of the Christian Messiah, joking that the solemn anniversary Good Friday should be called “Excellent Friday”. Did a single Christian raise a placard or write a petition to stop your University from conferring on him an honorary degree? No, and presumably because it should be clear that recognition of a public figure does not equal an endorsement of every single thing he or she has ever said. If some minorities cannot assimilate this simple truth, that’s too bad. But the way to teach them that one man’s dogma is another man’s doggerel is not to capitulate to a tiny group’s preemptive demands.

Beyond their obvious parallels, the cases of Kushner and Wieseltier are informative because, despite their considerable esteem, Ali surpasses them in dignity and significance in current affairs. She is an icon to millions, including me. Israel has never oppressed Kushner; Christians have never persecuted Wieseltier. But from her birthplace in Somalia to her adopted country the Netherlands and current home in the United States, the forces of radical Islam have followed Ali and tormented her all along the way. As a victim of forced marriage and genital mutilation, and later a target of numerous death threats, she has the right to criticize radical Islam. This right is not hers because of this harrowing personal experience, nor is it because she is a woman or former Muslim or Fellow of Harvard’s Kennedy School. It is granted her by our First Amendment, and guaranteed by those heirs of Madison who believe one citizen should not arbitrarily supersede another’s freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the central, unmentioned irony at the heart of this entire affair is the very name of your University. Surely you are not unaware of the immortal decision rendered by Justice Brandeis in his decision in Whitney v. California (1927), where he stressed that contentious disputes were the beating heart of the American political system.

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. […] They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.

So what happened to our priorities? In the battle to produce a public discourse worth having, we must categorically affirm that not only will truth set us free, but only freedom will set each of us on the way toward finding truth.


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