“We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?” This is how the Smith College student newspaper transcribed remarks by a recent campus speaker. Of course the article also prefaced the remarks with a casual trigger warning: “Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.” Did I mention the article was covering a panel discussion on free speech? When this is how a campus paper transcribes a panelist’s remarks I think “wild and crazy” is exactly what we are.
Recently some have begun paying attention to the frightening, creeping censorship that trigger warnings represent. Unfortunately, the problem on America’s campuses is much bigger.
Consider my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Under two years ago when I was still a student there, the school invited Narendra Modi, now the Prime Minister of India, to speak via Skype at the Wharton India Economic Forum. It was not to be.
A group of professors successfully led an effort to have him disinvited. The petitioners were led by Professor Ania Loomba, who pledged to educate the community about the “incalculable and continuing harm done by Modi’s brand of politics to the secular values enshrined in India’s constitution.” Apparently freedom of speech was not one of the secular values the petitioners wished to defend.
Loomba, by the way, is the same professor who defended the presence of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference at Penn just a year earlier. Then, she stated that the role of teachers is “to model respectful and rigorous intellectual exchange, especially on highly politicized issues that evoke such impassioned responses” and that “every political issue has to be debated.” Whatever view one holds of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the inconsistency should give us all pause.
Another Penn professor, Toorjo Ghose, defended the efforts to ban Modi, saying, “We in fact established free speech by resisting his platform. Free speech has been co-opted into a horrendous practice here.” He was not being ironic.
Loomba and Ghose are not alone. 78 Penn professors signed the anti-Modi petition within just a few hours of its circulation. More broadly, 59% of campuses maintain severe speech restrictions and roughly one out of every six of America’s top colleges and universities has a free speech zone. (For the uninitiated in this new form of liberalism, a free speech zone is a particular area of campus dedicated to the exercise of First Amendment rights, with the obvious implication that those rights do not necessarily exist elsewhere on campus.)
Yet free speech is not the only right under attack. Many universities have radically curtailed students’ right to due process. Harvard, for instance, adopted procedures so overwhelmingly stacked against the accused that 28 members of its law school faculty were driven to issue a scathing, public response. Colgate University once prepared a letter of interim suspension for a male student accused of pushing a female student before questioning him or even informing him of the allegation. The accused student was denied the option to seek counsel and kept under guard in the basement of a dorm without cell reception or Wi-Fi for two nights. This was the university’s idea of complying with Title IX.
Even those who might justify such a response will have a difficult time defending the way Title IX is being used to curtail rights more broadly. Fordham’s Title IX Coordinator recently investigated a professor there on secret charges. As the investigation unfolded, the university never showed the professor anything in writing and cited his choice to have legal representation as evidence of his guilt. Fordham eventually sent him a letter clearing him of the charge of religious discrimination. The letter was the first time he was informed of what he stood accused. The actual crime? His declaration that he would quit the American Studies program if it did not distance itself from anti-Semitism.
The responsibility for the problem, however, also rests with the students themselves. In just the past year, students have either disinvited or pressured away speakers ranging from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Christine Lagarde to Condoleezza Rice. Now the same group of students that invited Bill Maher to speak at Berkeley’s December graduation has voted to disinvite him because they disagree with some of his more recent statements. The irony, as Maher himself has pointed out, is that it is the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.
So here’s to the education of our nation’s future leaders, our liberal McCarthyists.
A day before ISIS released its latest gruesome video of the beheading of an innocent and heroic American, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart offered up a defense of President Obama’s policy. In what is perhaps the article’s most memorable segment, Beinart attacked those like Senators McCain and Graham who want Obama to take more forceful action against the group:
McCain and Graham want Obama to act both “deliberately” and “urgently” because they’re both happy words. (As opposed to “lethargically” and “rashly,” which are nastier synonyms for the same thing.) But when you translate these uplifting abstractions into plain English, you see how contradictory McCain and Graham’s demands actually are. You can either demand that Obama not bomb Syria until he’s ensured he has a plan likely to win international and congressional support, or you can demand that he bomb as soon as possible. You can’t demand both.
Actually, you can. Senators McCain and Graham are right in demanding that sometime in, say, the last three years Obama should have developed a strategy for confronting the growing extremist spillover from the Syrian Civil War. On September 2 a former Pentagon official revealed that Obama was given in-depth intelligence about ISIS in particular for at least a year before its surge this summer, yet a week after the first beheading Obama admitted that “we don’t have a strategy yet.” Beinart’s false choice glosses over the President’s procrastination.
Too often Obama has treated foreign policy as a spectator sport. Recently he was surprised by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates’ bombing of Libya even though those countries’ concerns about extremists’ gains have been growing for some time. His attitude towards governance more generally helps illustrate the theme. Obama was initially unaware of the problems with the website for his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, as well as the National Security Agency’s decade-long practice of spying on allies. An October 2013 article in the Washington Post summed this all up nicely when it cited former Obama administration officials as saying that “the president’s inattention to detail has been a frequent source of frustration, leading in some cases to reversals of diplomatic initiatives and other efforts that had been underway for months.”
This is not a call for all-out war on ISIS; it is a critique of the President’s reluctance to make a decision on ISIS, whatever it may be. Even if tomorrow we learn that Obama has put together a coherent strategy for confronting the threat of ISIS or any of the other crises facing the United States, it would not make up for the fact that when he has made decisions, they have often been dictated by political considerations. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently recounted that Obama and Hillary Clinton admitted in front of him that this was the case with their public opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq during the 2008 presidential campaign even though, by Clinton’s own private admission, “The Iraq surge worked.” More importantly, it would not excuse the fact that his aides, including Clinton, have defined the guiding principle of his foreign policy as “don’t do stupid stuff.”
The first time ISIS beheaded an American journalist Obama said that he did not want to “put the cart before the horse” with regard to his policy. Two and a half weeks have now passed since the first beheading. Are we still putting the cart before the horse in demanding a plan of action, or are President Obama’s policies simply falling behind?
In January President Obama dismissed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group currently terrorizing much of the Middle East, as “jayvee.” “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he said when asked about the fact that such al-Qaeda offshoots were flying their flag in Iraq.
Well, since then that jayvee team of jihadists has taken over large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, beheading and crucifying people along the way. Disproving the President’s previous view – until yesterday he refrained from authorizing even limited strikes against the group – ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates have shown time and again that they mean exactly what they say.
On July 18th, ISIS warned Iraq’s religious minorities that they were to convert to Islam, pay a tax for their religion, or die. Over the past week they have driven out 130,000 people from the Yazidi city of Sinjar. 40,000 civilians now remain trapped in the mountains dying of dehydration and facing slaughter below, where ISIS continues to kidnap women and children and execute civilians by the hundreds.
This is not the first time that ISIS has carried out this threat. One graphic video shows ISIS beheading a man in Syria after forcing him to convert. Nor is ISIS the only terrorist group following through on its rhetoric.
On March 28th Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau stated that “in Islam it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and in due course we will start taking women away and sell in the market.” On April 14th Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students. Similarly, in a July 2013 video, a visibly crazed Shekau promised that schools would be burned and teachers killed. Three months later Boko Haram killed more than 40 students at an agricultural college, and, another three months after that, burned down a school in Nigeria’s northern Yobe state, leaving 29 boys dead.
Somalia-based al-Shabaab has similarly kept its word. On April 20th the terror group warned Kenya, “We are going to blow you up, we will destroy you all.” In July the group claimed responsibility for killing dozens in multiple terror attacks.
These are just a few examples of the violent extremism that is running rampant throughout the Middle East and Africa and the people of the region are increasingly worried. 92% of the Lebanese public is concerned about Islamic extremism, up 11 points from a year ago, and Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have all seen similar spikes in their levels of concern. In contrast, the percentage of Americans who consider international terrorism to be a critical threat has decreased from 81% to 77% over the past year, and only 57% view Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat.
Given the geographic distance separating the United States from these groups, perhaps it is not surprising that the level of concern is lower in the U.S. than in many of the nations cited above. What is surprising, however, is the public’s indifference to these and other such atrocities and groups. It is true that the U.S. cannot and should not intervene every time that there is a crisis or that a terror group launches attacks, as Obama stated while announcing limited airstrikes on ISIS and humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis yesterday. But it is also true that these groups have proved that they do not mince words.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader and self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS, was released from a U.S. detention facility in 2009 – yes, the U.S. let him go – he said, “I’ll see you guys in New York.” At the time, it was dismissed as a joke. Perhaps we should listen.
Yarmouk was home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in the country before the conflict began. 180,000 Palestinian civilians called it home. Now only 20,000 remain. Food and medical supplies are routinely denied entry and starvation is one of the three main causes of death. Recently, in the Jarabulus area, 22 people were killed and thrown into the streets to instill fear in the population. Some of them were children.
Amnesty International has called for the immediate lifting of the siege, the cessation of shelling and other indiscriminate attacks, and for humanitarian agencies to have unfettered access to the area. The disproportional attacks on civilians must end.
Down with Israel? Not quite. Yarmouk and Jarabulus are in Syria.
In fact, many in that country are decrying the lack of attention to their plight and the fact that images and videos often go viral only when they are falsely presented as being from Gaza. Marc Lynch, the Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at GWU, put it succinctly when he said, “It must be so awkward having to check whether the dead child is from Gaza or Syria before deciding whether to be morally outraged.”
So to those condemning Israel: Are you pro-Palestinian, or are you really just anti-Israel? Many of you purportedly care so much when you really care so little. As Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic once wrote: It is easier “not to dive deep into the substance of anything. It is less immediately satisfying than cursing and linking.”
My Twitter and Facebook feeds would have me believe that the only noteworthy military conflict in the world today is that between Israel and Hamas. Either many of you care about war only when it involves a Jew holding a gun, or you are woefully unaware of what else is going on in the world. In case it is the latter, and I sincerely hope it is, here is a (very) partial list of the death tolls from other ongoing conflicts. In no particular order:
South Sudan: ~10,000
This is not to say that your attention and sympathies should be dictated by casualty counts. All civilian deaths are tragic. Moreover, such figures tell us nothing about the moral standing of the warring parties, especially not in the case of the asymmetric warfare that Hamas is waging. After all, the United States lost about 450,000 lives fighting in World War II while the Nazis lost over seven million, yet I would wager that none of you think the Nazis held the moral high ground. At least I hope so. The twisted logic and moral relativism of some of the posts I have been reading make me wonder.
What these figures do show is that while all war contains tragedy, including the one in Gaza and Israel, only deaths connected to Jews seem to evoke the cries we have been hearing over the number of dead in Gaza, which pales in comparison to other conflicts and is largely due to Hamas’ grotesque tactics. While there are few of you whom I would accuse as individuals of holding animosity toward Jews, there are many of you who are participating in a global, collective media assault on Israel that is indeed suggestive of something much darker.
I am not asking you not to care. On the contrary, I am hoping that you all start to care more – about the many problems in the world. Then, perhaps going forward your condemnation of Israel could be – let’s see, how should I put this – more proportional.