Yesterday, it suddenly became very important to focus our attention on the upcoming commencement ceremony at Brandeis University -- which is ordinarily something that most of the wide world outside the Brandeis community could frankly give two figs about. But here's what happened. Brandeis had intended to bring author and -- I guess -- "thought leader" Ayaan Hirsi Ali to their commencement festivities, bestow her with an honorary degree and let her speak to students and fellows at a diploma ceremony and a celebratory breakfast.
Well, as of yesterday, all of that is off. In a statement, the Brandeis said: "She 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 ... That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."
So, what's all that about? Well, Hirsi Ali is a figure of some controversy, don't you know! She has been a strong voice against such barbaric practices as female genital mutilation, and the more totalitarian aspects of Islamic sharia law that oppress women, such as so-called "honor killings." Personally speaking, I am glad she has done such things. However, she is not of the mind that Islam is a legitimate religion that has been, in some instances, tragically co-opted in some benighted corners of the world by nihilistic death-cults. She does not believe it is possible for a moderate or Westernized form of Islam to exist. She has said so: "There is no moderate Islam." And so, she has called for the complete destruction of Islam existentially.
I do not hold to that view -- in fact, I find it both risible and farcically contrary to my own experiences -- and she will just have to jolly well accept that. But the reverse is also true, and herein lies the problem we have been presented with, thanks to Brandeis University. Whether they know it or not, the actions they have taken have done way more harm than good. To anyone with a liberal-minded attitude toward freedom of expression, Brandeis' decision has done you no favors. Let's break it down, shall we?
Let's first stipulate that things like honorary degrees and commencement-day speeches rank very high on the list of things not worth going to the mattresses over. The whole practice of giving people honorary degrees is mostly bullshit, and if we stopped doing it tomorrow it wouldn't cost us anything. And commencement-day addresses are usually forgettable at best, and hack nonsense at worst. In the history of valedictory addresses there has only ever been one that was actually any good, and that was the one that David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. (Interestingly enough, his message was that life was brutish and short, you're not the center of the universe, and while everyone can be a jerk sometimes, the highest thing you can do intellectually is learn to consider the other people around you and think of them benevolently whenever possible.)
That was the one and only good commencement speech, no one is ever going to top it, and David Foster Wallace is dead and he's never coming back. The entire field of graduation oration is now one in which a famous comedian might drop a memorable joke, but that's where this genre of oratory tops out. Most of you who graduate this year will be hard-pressed to remember your commencement speaker a year from now. Frankly, you will be hard-pressed to not just want the speeches at your graduation to end so you can just skip to the after-party. Show me a person who is legitimately excited about a commencement speaker and I will show you that commencement speaker's son or daughter (which, let's face it, is how most of these people get booked in the first place).
Given enough time to get outraged, it is possible to find just about anyone who delivers a college commencement speech to be objectionable. I've been to three commencement ceremonies at my alma mater -- at one I saw Virginia Gov. George Allen speak, at another I saw media superstar Katie Couric. Chances are that the people who liked the one would have had objections to the other. Whatever. They both spoke and the intellectual edifices of the University of Virginia remained standing.
I basically foresee the future of commencement speakers being fairly similar to the past history of commencement speakers. Colleges and universities will continue to solicit the presence of political figures, public intellectuals, elite opinion-havers, captains of industry, agents of social change, celebrities from lists A to Z and rich alumni with the means to donate huge sums of cash. Chances are, these people will have all said something that someone finds objectionable. Let's accept this, right now, as a fact of life. Let's further accept that your college or university never promised you anything at your commencement ceremonies other than the diploma you've earned.
Most importantly, however, let's understand that a consequence of shutting down any commencement honoree that you don't like immediately opens the door to the same thing being done to someone you admire. Brandeis University is officially saying that this is permissible.
Here's a thing that happened in the immediate wake of Brandeis' decision to put the kibosh on Hirsi Ali's planned appearance: The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol started typing stuff. Here's what he came up with:
As Lori Lowenthal Marcus notes, Brandeis University has in recent years bestowed an honorary degree on Tony Kushner, who called the creation of Israel as a Jewish state “a mistake” and who attacked Israel for ethnic cleansing and for causing “terrible peril in the world.” Brandeis has also honored Desmond Tutu, who compared Israel to Hitler, attacked the “Jewish lobby” as too “powerful” and “scary,” and complained of the “Jewish monopoly of the Holocaust.”
As it happens, Tony Kushner is one of my favorite playwrights. So you can only imagine how excited I am that one of the (logical and predictable) after-effects of this Brandeis flap is that Kushner now has got a target painted on his back. I am really looking forward to Kushner getting hounded by lackwits the next time someone extends a public speaking opportunity to him. Great work, everyone who hounded Brandeis in similar fashion! What are you going to say the next time someone does what you did to a speaker you like? You'll be able to say nothing credible, unfortunately.
So what should be done? It feels strange to have to point this out, but up until yesterday anyway, the best and most effective way we have societally coped with ideas and speech and expression that we find risible is to counter it with more ideas and speech and expression.
Yes, of course, everyone knows that the world of free expression is rife with structural inequities -- sometimes the worst ideas get the biggest microphone, and there are entire social structures which exist solely to ensure that people of certain classes, races, and genders get the first and best turn on the soapbox. But in leveling this playing field, we should not aspire to level everyone's opportunity downward. Our reaction to our own perceived disadvantage should not be to equalize disadvantage across the board. Rather, we should seek to level up. Sometimes that means teaming up and working hard. And sometimes, the need to do so can feel, in and of itself, unjust.
But as long as we're talking about that, you should know that the continued existence of the justice that underpins your right to speak your mind depends on you extending the same right to the people with whom you disagree. If you weaken that, justice collapses in a heap, and you'll find that you've undermined your own rights.
There are plenty of things that I don't like seeing in the public square -- those anti-gay Phelps nutters, KKK rallies, people who push the Blueprint Cleanse -- but insofar as these people are putting forth a public argument, my attitude is, "Let them say what they have to say. I can take these guys." In a world where more and more of the forces that govern our lives are going under cover of darkness (thank you, Supreme Court!), it's worth remembering that it's a blessing to have the things we find objectionable be right out in the open, for all to see.
If there was a higher ideal that could have governed Brandeis' decision-making, I think that the alleged "core values" that the university cited in its statement might have been a useful thing upon which everyone could have reflected. "Core values" are supposed to steel us, arm us with courage and provide us with a foundation to argue our point of view. If "core values" truly exist, then so too should the desire to engage with people who don't share those values. Otherwise, "core values" is just marketing. So if this student body is truly infused with these values, and ready to take on the world, then why run from a challenge this late in the game?
But here I am, suggesting that Brandeis' graduation ceremonies are a thing that should be treated as something of national importance. The simple fact of the matter is that there was nothing at stake until the University decided that they simply couldn't bear to have Hirsi Ali on hand. Now, the ripple effect of that decision will have its unintended impact, and the people who are satisfied today that she won't be speaking at Brandeis will get to enjoy the tables being turned on them at some point down the road. And who knows how many of us non-agitants will get caught up in this turf war? And for what? If I'm missing the larger good that's going to come from Brandeis' decision, then someone is going to have to explain it to me.
Alex Pareene once wrote something that's stuck with me: "You gotta let shit slide sometimes." Even when you feel, deep in your bones, that you are right. That is a tough thing to learn -- how to pick your battles. I've found that the hardest lesson in battle-picking comes when you stumble headlong into a larger war you didn't want.
So, good luck to whoever gets tapped to speak or receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University's commencement next year, because I promise you, it'll be knives out from here on in.
[CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that Hirsi Ali would be the speaker at Brandeis' graduation ceremony itself. She was actually originally slated to receive an honorary degree, and address students on two other occasions during graduation weekend -- a diploma ceremony and a celebratory breakfast. We regret the error and any concomitant confusion it caused. This piece has been corrected throughout.]
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