The progression is becoming miserably familiar: first, an invitation is proffered to someone of heterodox views; next, the forces of conformity congeal and solidify, circulating petitions, banging drums, and rambling about justice and what you will; then the would-be host begins to worry, announcing meekly that it is reviewing its options; and finally, the invitation is shamefully revoked, usually under the paradoxical auspices of broadmindedness and inclusion. “We’re sorry,” the typical explanation runs, “but we’re too permissive to allow your sort.”
This week’s target was the atheist and women’s-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose invitation to Brandeis University’s commencement ceremony was rescinded after pressure from an array of bleeding hearts threatened to turn the event into a learning experience. “Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” Brandeis confirmed yesterday afternoon, “Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement.” And that, as they say, was that.
Those who have remarked reflexively that they could not imagine a university giving in to pressure leveled against a staunch critic of Christianity or Judaism presumably do not know just how right they are. Responding to criticism after it elected to confer an honorary degree on Tony Kushner — a playwright who has admitted to having “a problem with the idea of a Jewish state” and to believing that “the biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community” — Brandeis clarified its policy toward the controversial, explaining that the college
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.
I must say that it is rather difficult for a layman such as myself to comprehend precisely how the esteemed faculty at Brandeis intends to square this wholehearted insistence that it “does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions” with its profession on Wednesday that, having recently reviewed the more acerbic of Ali’s political beliefs and opinions, it finds them to be “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Perhaps I’m missing a critical emanation or penumbra here, but if the consciences and professions of its honorees have no bearing on the integrity of their achievements, it should not matter whether their convictions comport with those held by the University, should it?
The statement announcing Brandeis’s disinvitation confirms happily that Ali is held by the faculty to be “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights” and that the powers-that-be “respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world.” In this much at least, its authors did not err. In a less vapid world, Ali’s record would provoke the admiration, not the contempt, of the buzzwords-and-privilege crowd. In the face of the most appalling abuse, a weaker woman would have retreated from her project and gone quietly into hiding. Ali did no such thing. Instead, she established a foundation, the goal of which is to protect women in the West who are the victims of religiously inspired oppression and, in Ali’s own words, to
reinforce the basic rights and freedoms of women and girls, including security and control of their own bodies, access to an education, the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, freedom of expression and association, and the myriad other basic civil rights defined under the laws of Western democracies and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It strikes me that there should be little in this mission statement for anybody to dislike, least of all those who see themselves as the standard-bearers for “social justice” and for toleration. Still, as the more cynical among us have observed for a while now, the Left’s hierarchy of victims is a complex and contradictory thing, liable to yield all sorts of peculiar outcomes. Certainly, Ali has tended to side with a favored group — women — against a favored foe — religion. But in the process she has made the mistake of criticizing another favored group — Islam — and, Islam being customarily given a break because its adherents are generally poor and dark-skinned, that just won’t do.
Brandeis’s chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Joseph Lumbard, explained anemically that the invitation “makes Muslim students feel very uneasy.” One would rather expect so, yes. Ali has described Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and she has made no secret of her holistic distaste for both its tenets and its practice. “Once [Islam] is defeated,” she argued bombastically during an interview with Reason in 2007, “it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”
There is no middle ground in progressivism either, it seems: Either one is in or one is out; one is a player on the right team, or one is a bigot to be protested and to be shunned.
Illustrating this neatly last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained to Brandeis that Ali was a “notorious Islamophobe,” thereby managing in a single sentence to dismiss a lifetime of experience and of work with the insinuation of irrationality and to apply to the victim a term customarily reserved for the tormentor. Typically, I object to the use of “phobic” on the grounds that, where once it meant something useful and concrete, it has now been hijacked by our self-appointed arbiters of taste and transmuted into a multipurpose cudgel against dissent. In this case, however, I must cut CAIR some slack, for, wholly inadvertently, it has hit the nail on the head. “Phobia,” as any first-year student of the classics knows, is derived from the Greek word phobos, which translates literally as “panic flight.” Could there be a more apposite description of Ali’s experiences than just that? Here is Ali on her experiences as a young Muslim girl in Somalia: “I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage, for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.”
That “world” was not the United States, but Holland, to which country Ali fled in search of emancipation. What she got instead — again at the hands of a religion that had previously attempted to remove her clitoris and to force her into a marriage that she opposed — was unimaginable horror. For the crime of sharing in documentary form what she had been through in Somalia, Ali was treated to the murder of her friend, the director Theo van Gogh, and to death threats of her own — one of which was thoughtfully pinned to van Gogh’s mutilated corpse. She fled, again, this time to the United States. Islamophobe? Sure.
Prepossessed as he was with the all-encompassing wars of his era, George Orwell complained that political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Unlike Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the culture warriors of America’s pampered campuses are unlikely to be dealing in murder or in warfare or, for that matter, in anything of much consequence at all. Nevertheless, they enjoy playing assassin, painting glowing targets onto the backs of any idea that threatens their power and, one by one, seeking the bullseyes. In the private sector, this is a prerogative of which no friend of liberty would seek to deprive them. Like any other organization, Brandeis can do as it sees fit. But it could at least have the decency to dress its decisions in the clothing that they deserve. “Apologies,” the faculty might say, “but we can give out honors to whomever we wish, and the truth is that we just do not like the cut of your jib.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.