The Shameful Decline of Academic Virtue: or, the continuing affair of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

First, I have the rare pleasure of congratulating an Ivy League university for doing the right thing: later today Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale will welcome Ayaan Hirsi Ali to give a lecture on their campus. For those of you who are not aware, Ms. Ali is a rare individual who embodies the triumph of the individual against overwhelming odds and (sadly) also the perfidy of our current academic climate.

This invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali was explicitly a reaction to the actions taken by Brandeis University earlier this year: for those unfamiliar with the earlier fracas, Brandeis University was set to award Ms. Ali an honorary degree, in recognition of her tireless fight for women’s rights, especially the rights of women in Islamic countries. Unfortunately Ms. Ali would discover that the virtue of speaking for powerless women, of being “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights” is no protection for a critic of Islam.

Along with many others, I found the incident a shameful renunciation of the principles Brandeis claims to honor (my letter to the administration can be found at the bottom of this post), a sign their priorities had a great deal less to do with Truth, and more to do with what was politically comfortable. In fact, just as the news of the rescinded honor was making the rounds, Brandeis was flogging on their Facebook page a hagiograhpical movie about that tireless defender of women… Anita Hill.

 

Isn’t it funny how unattractive “speaking truth to power” becomes when the people with power actually cut off critic’s heads?

This is the second reason I am congratulating Yale University and their William F. Buckley, Jr. Program: the same forces of “tolerance” that succeeded in persuading the hapless Brandeis administration to rescind their honor have descended on the Yale administration. Thankfully Yale (or, more appropriately, the Buckley Program) has stood fast in the face of those who would destroy freedom of speech to save free speech. People like, say, the spokesman for the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA) who proclaim that “the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech”, but, alas, “The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment.” Ah, he is only looking out for Yale and its liability, how generous of the fellow!

Except, of course, his legal understanding is completely wrong. Unfortunately, while he may be completely wrong, the list of organizations that has signed on with the MSA shows he is far from alone.

 

The following is the letter I sent to the Brandeis University administration on the occasion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s dis-invitation;

As a Brandeis alumnus, and with the holiday season fast approaching, a certain folktale was brought to my mind when thinking about the recent incident with Ayaan Hirsa Ali and how her outspoken criticism of Islam (especially its shameful treatment of women) seems to have cost her an honorary doctorate.

Many are familiar with the stories of the Maharal of Prague, Judah Loew, and his creation of the Golem. How with his hands he carved it from base materials of river clay and breathed life into it by carving upon its forehead a certain word. In some versions the Golem is animated by the name of the Lord, but in other versions, a more familiar word is used. That word is “Emet” and it is familiar because it is inscribed in the center of the Brandies University school crest, for it means Truth.

You see, what is important about this version of the Golem story is how it ends: the Golem, tainted by world concerns becomes unable to fulfill its purpose. So the Maharal placed his hands upon the Golem’s head and erased the Aleph, leaving behind only Met.

Which is Death.

The divine magic gone, the Golem returned to the lifeless clay from which it came.

Has the Aleph been scratched from Brandeis’ crest? Has the school that proclaims “Truth, Even unto its innermost parts” turned its back on the truth, on the principles of open debate and free speech? Is what may and may not be said to be determined by the mob?

Ms. Ali “is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world” and before last week she was worthy of an honorary degree. But not last week. As of last week, Brandeis “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values”(1).

One must forgive a certain confusion as to what these core values are, precisely. One wonders also what the “past statements” of Ms. Ali were, they certainly must be very serious to be both so obscure that they were unknown until now, but also so inflammatory that they cannot be borne. More serious certainly then the statements of Tony Kushner (honorary doctorate 2006) who “believe[s] that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing”(2). And that “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.”

When it was time to honor Mr. Kushner, then Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz proclaimed the standard was to look beyond politics, and award the degrees only on the basis of specific works;

“Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.

Over the years, Brandeis has honored hundreds of men and women of distinction whose personal views, I am sure, span the full spectrum of political discourse, and the University applies no litmus test requiring honorary degree recipients to hold particular views on Israel or topics of current political debate.”

What now? If Truth at Brandeis is subject to the mob’s veto, if one’s politics can stray far from the polite and into the insulting, but only when certain groups are involved, what then is left of Truth at all? Should we get the chisels and carve an asterisk into the motto? “Truth, Even unto its innermost parts*” *So long as no-one from approved groups is offended; so long as only Israel and Jews are demeaned.

Let’s be clear: I don’t know and I don’t care if Ms. Ali is deserving of the “honor” of an honorary degree from Brandeis. What I do know is that the principles that operated before, the principles of open discussion and tolerance that had Desmond Tutu (no friend of Israel there!) address my own commencement, have been cast aside.

Maybe it’s time to just scrape the Aleph from the school’s crest and be honest about things?

1) http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2014/april/commencementupdate.html

2) http://www.scribd.com/doc/54643560/Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11

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