The rescinding of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not exactly an act of punishment. No one has a right to any such degree and Brandeis is fully within its rights to breach basic manners and fail to do basic research about an honoree’s past work. And Ayaan has indeed said some intemperate and extreme things at times about Islam as a whole. But to judge Ayaan’s enormous body of work and her terrifying, pioneering life as a Somali refugee by a few quotes is, I’m afraid to say, all-too-familiar as an exercise in the public shaming of an intellectual for having provocative ideas. There seems to be an assumption that public speech must seek above all else to be “sensitive” rather than provocative, and must never hurt any feelings rather than tell uncomfortable truths. This is a terrible thing for liberal society as a whole and particularly terrible for a university campus, where freedom of thought should be paramount (although, of course, the hard academic left every day attempts to restrict that freedom).
The “outrage” at heterodoxy applies particularly to any members of an “oppressed” group who try and challenge the smelly little orthodoxies they are supposed to uphold. The venom and hatred seems to ramp up if the heretic is also a woman or African-American or gay or Latino or Jewish. For a woman of color like Hirsi Ali to challenge the religion of Islam is far more threatening to the p.c. left than, say, a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens. The latter can be dismissed as white males (there’s no prejudice like p.c. prejudice); Hirsi Ali not so much.
Here, after all, is the biography of a woman the left wanted Brandeis to dishonor: a young Somali girl forced to endure genital mutilation at the age of five and who was going to be forced into an arranged marriage if she did not flee her country; a refugee from brutal misogyny whose attempts to expose Islam’s treatment of girls and women led to death threats because of a documentary she wrote, and whose director was subsequently murdered. She runs a foundation that aims to protect girls and women in America from being abused at the hands of Islamic traditionalists. It’s worth noting that for the hard left, none of this really matters. Or perhaps it matters more. Because her credentials are so strong, the attempt to mark her as a bigot is that much more strenuous.
This double standard goes both ways, of course.
So, unlike Bill Kristol, I have no objection to Brandeis’ awarding Tony Kushner an honorary degree. I find Kushner’s politics drearily socialist and some of his work agitprop. But he provokes; he’s a really gifted playwright; he makes enemies; and engages the world of ideas forthrightly from the farthest reaches of the left. Why can we not debate if establishing the state of Israel was a mistake, for example? Why, for Kristol, is that topic out of bounds? Why on earth would a university choose not to give a man an honor just because he once dared to make that argument? Kushner was challenging his own ethnic group just as powerfully as Hirsi Ali is challenging her own. But here is the question: why is he lionized and Hirsi Ali disinvited? Why are provocative ideas on the “right” less legitimate than provocative ideas on the left?
That’s why this is dismaying. Not just because Brandeis has, within its rights, behaved shabbily; but because it wants to rig the public debate in favor of one set of arguments over another. There are many places that one might expect that to happen – but not a university.
[Update: as I disclosed last night, Ayaan is a friend of mine; and also the wife of a dear and old friend of mine, Niall Ferguson. So, as always, I have a bias. Sorry not to have disclosed it a second time for those just coming to the controversy.]
[Update: dissents from readers here]