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and women’s-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose invitation to Brandeis University’s commencement ceremony was rescinded after pressure from an array of bleeding hearts threatened to turn the event into a learning experience.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 Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement.”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?