Censorship 101

Censorship 101

Annals of Higher Education: If recent events at Stanford and Harvard are any indication, the past decade’s earnest debates over “political correctness” are over, replaced by roughshod policing

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Annals of Higher Education: If recent events at Stanford and Harvard are any indication, the past decade’s earnest debates over “political correctness” are over, replaced by roughshod policing of the boundaries of acceptable campus speech and speakers.

At Stanford Law School, Dean Kathleen Sullivan in early November abruptly withdrew an invitation the school had extended to New York criminal defense attorney Lynne Stewart to speak on campus as David W. Mills Public Interest Mentor. At Harvard, president Lawrence Summers persuaded the school’s English department faculty to cancel its prestigious Morris Gray Lectureship, to be given this year by poet Tom Paulin. Unlike Stanford, Harvard’s English department ultimately revised its position and reinvited Paulin. Despite these different outcomes, the issue was the same: not the invitees’ credentials but their ostensibly inflammatory views on the Mideast.

The Stanford case shows one dimension of these new campus jitters. The law school’s public interest program invited Stewart because of her long record as a radical “movement lawyer” dedicated to the effective defense of unpopular clients–most notoriously, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the convicted 1993 World Trade Center bombing conspirator. Stewart has been indicted by Attorney General John Ashcroft for allegedly violating the special security regulations surrounding the sheik, an indictment many mainstream criminal defense lawyers regard as a pretext for eroding the sanctity of attorney-client communications. The week before her scheduled appearance, sixty-four law students signed a protest petition; the Wall Street Journal then joined in the attack.

The next day, Sullivan stripped Stewart of the mentorship on the pretext that she has voiced support for revolutionary violence. Not that Stewart deserves a free pass–in the current Monthly Review she calls Rahman and his Islamist allies “basically forces of national liberation,” an analysis most charitably described as delusional. But the mentorship was about professionalism, not politics; and Sullivan’s standard for stripping Stewart also would have denied recognition to Nelson Mandela or Clarence Darrow. While the impact of the ban was essentially symbolic–Stewart met with students informally and collected her fee–it’s clear Sullivan set herself up as a one-dean politburo.

The case of Tom Paulin at Harvard, on the other hand, involves active censorship of a distinguished poet who ran afoul of the university president’s personal views. An Oxford professor currently teaching at Columbia who was raised in Belfast, Paulin writes in minute and furious detail of the ruinous legacies of European empire. Last year he was branded an anti-Semite by the likes of Martin Peretz after publishing a brief poem in London’s Observer titled “Killed in Crossfire,” which included this line: “As another little Palestinian boy/in trainers jeans and a white teeshirt/is gunned down by the Zionist SS.” The attacks on Paulin escalated this year, when in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Jenin he gave an interview to an Egyptian weekly that quoted him as calling Israel “a historical obscenity” and proclaiming that Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers “should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” Yet Paulin has since distanced himself from the interview–to the Daily Telegraph and to the BBC, where he said that “some of what was reported in the original article is deeply offensive to all right-thinking people.”

That these regrets were not mere backpedaling is testified to by Paulin’s poetry. His books are replete not with anti-Semitism but with passionate testimonies about Marc Chagall, Walter Benjamin, Rudolf Slansky, the corpses of Bergen-Belsen. His most recent volume, The Invasion Handbook, recalls the “murder theft danger” of Kristallnacht, the bloodcurdling anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot and the most-wanted list of Jewish exiles in London drawn up by the Nazis. The Invasion Handbook embodies what Ed Sanders has called “investigative poetics,” tracing through meticulous research the rise of Nazism and the coming catastrophe of World War II across Europe.

This historical and political richness is what set Paulin on a collision course with Summers, who in September gave a speech equating anti-Israel campus campaigns with anti-Semitism. When Israel supporters applied the Harvard president’s reductionist calculus to Paulin, Summers let the English department know of his indignation–evidently, without reading the poems. To its credit, after a week the department regrouped, realized the damage to free expression and its own autonomy, and reinvited Paulin. But the message had already been sent: For any department to sponsor an anti-Zionist–even for a poetry reading having nothing to do with this contentious terrain–is to risk the president’s intervention.

Sullivan and Summers come out of these controversies looking at once like bullies and like fearful sycophants afraid their campuses cannot tolerate the heat of political contention. But they are encouraged by a new censoriousness–among, but not limited to, American Jewish leaders–toward critical expression on Israel. It’s a pathetic reversal of the McCarthy era, when Jewish students and faculty reckoned with how much their own fortunes were constrained by academic blacklists. With contention over Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict, these are probably the most emotional times on campus since the Vietnam War–precisely the circumstances in which universities have a special obligation toward controversial advocates and artists. Dean Sullivan and President Summers just flunked.

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