Phi Beta Cons

Re: Anti-Israeli Art Removed at Brandeis

No, no, no–Candace, I think you are on the wrong side of this one. You seem absolutely pleased that the “propagandistic Palestinian war propaganda” has been removed from Brandeis, and you dismiss one student’s desire to start a “dialogue” thusly: “The justification of propaganda in the name of ‘dialogue’ is a common mantra on campuses–and is itself propaganda.”
Propaganda!? Before I discuss the particulars of this case, let’s talk about the principle. Even if this art exhibit is the lowest form of pro-Palestinian propaganda–a view unsupportable by the evidence, I think–conservatives who value free speech on campus should still defend a student’s right to display said artwork. That way, at least, everyone else on campus can decide whether the student in question is a suicide bomber in the wings, or whether the critics and administrators are just a bunch of mealy-mouthed fusspots. Why did conservatives get upset when universities banned the showing of those Muhammad cartoons? It was a freedom-of-speech issue, but it was also a matter of letting the students decide for themselves whether the cartoons were in fact inflammatory. The same principle should hold here. And if people get upset, they have many available outlets at their fingertips–e-mail, editorials, pickets, sidewalk chalking, etc.
Now the particulars of this case make the university’s censorship–as well as that derisive comment about “propaganda”–even more egregious. Lior Halperin is a Jewish Israeli student, a former member of the Israeli Army, and she was in a class called “The Arts of Building Peace,” which, according to the Boston Globe, examined how “music, painting, and poetry can help resolve conflicts.” For her final project she called a friend employed in a Bethlehem refugee camp, and had her “invite teenagers there to paint images of Palestinian life.” The images–you can see one via the above link–were hung beside the pictures of the children, alongside synopses of their “hopes and dreams.” A Palestinian psychologist and child-care worker spoke at the exhibition’s opening, because Lior wanted to “bring to Brandeis the Palestinian voice that is not spoken or heard through an Israeli or an American Jew, but directly delivered from Palestinians.” Brandeis, I should add, is, according to at least one student, a “traditionally Jewish, pro-Israel campus.”
And then the administration received complaints–a whopping six to twelve, according to the Globe–and pulled the plug. ‘‘It was completely from one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we can only go based on the complaints we received,” said spokesman Dennis Nealon. ‘‘People were saying: (a) what is this; (b) what is it trying to say; and (c) should there be some sort of balancing perspective here?” Those are certainly interesting questions, and precisely the ones no one can answer for themselves because they can no longer see the paintings! Why? Because half a dozen students complained. This is beyond ludicrous–and the same rationale that led to prevalent censorship during the cartoon controversy. It’s the tyranny of the minority, those aggrieved few, run amock, and supported by an overbearing, coddling administration.
Even if one thinks these images are “Palestinian war propaganda,” it’s still a view not seen at Brandeis very much, in contrast to other campuses where conservatives complain about the way the pro-Israel lobby is treated. When campus administrators start making decisions about whether something is offensive, or whether it is too one-sided, then you walk right down the path to . . . the same campus censorship we often criticize on this blog. It should not matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the censored speech–it is still censored speech. (Anyway, would not true “Palestinian war propaganda” also be instructive, for a different set of reasons?)
“This (is) an educational institution that is supposed to promote debate and dialogue,” explained Lior. “Let’s talk about what it is: 12-year-olds from a Palestinian refugee camp. Obviously it’s not going to be about flowers and balloons.” This isn’t the shrill cackle of some campus extremist demanding a “dialogue”; this is a reasonable response to an unreasonable administration. Campus censorship can cut both ways, and conservatives of all stripes should be on Lior’s side in this one.
N.B.: On a linguistic note, I’d point out that the word propaganda, like the word rhetoric, does not etymologically carry a negative connotation. It means only, “material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause,” or some neutral variation thereof. So, yes, in a sense the exhibition was propaganda. But to call for it to be censored for that reason alone, while claiming to stand up for freedom of speech on campus, seems awfully hypocritical.
Update: A reader sends in this link about a FIRE case in which DePaul banned a College Republicans protest of Ward Churchill; the university cited its vague policy against  “propaganda.”

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