Updates: See Bottom of Post
The post below on photos of University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann posing with a student dressed as a suicide bomber, all made at her residence during her annual Halloween costume party, has created a blog firestorm, with virtually every big blog linking to Democracy Project. To all of you who linked or emailed your thoughts, my sincere thanks. I'll be posting some of those emails soon.
UPDATE: Eugene Volokh thinks the suicide-bomber costume is no big deal: It's Halloween, after all. Hmm. Would a university President really pose for photos with someone in a Klan outfit, or wearing blackface? I find that hard to imagine. And if not, why is the suicide bomber outfit OK?
The Nazi analogy is, I think, a poor one. Nazis are a vanquished former enemy. Suicide bombers are a current enemy. Could that be a relevant difference?
ANOTHER UPDATE: Eugene responds: "I would likewise defend someone who came to a party as a Klansman. Same theory -- Klansmen are scary; Halloween is about scary costumes; Halloween is not about endorsing the characters you're dressing as."
I remain skeptical that a Klansman costume would be received in the same fashion, or that an Ivy League university President would be comfortable being photographed with someone wearing a Klan costume.
I come down solidly with Glenn on this one. Volokh argues that it's not the place of the university president to notice costumes and make spot judgments on whether or not they're appropriate, or whether to have her photo made with a costumer.
But this isn't a matter of taste, as his comment implies: it's a matter of morality, of ethical judgment, and of political correctness at work. The repulsion that one would feel at seeing a costumer dressed as a Nazi or a Klansman is indeed an apt analogy here, because that repulsion stems from historically sound reasons--mass murderers and racists aren't funny. And, pace Volokh, I can't imagine any university president anywhere agreeing to pose with someone wearing a white sheet, because anyone to whom a prestigious institution could be entrusted would immediately recognize such a costume as so morally objectionable that he would refuse. Indeed, I strongly suspect that a scandal would ensue in which the student was upbraided if not hauled before a student or administrative tribunal.
But suicide bombers are often treated in the press as being either morally equivalent to the Israelis they seek to kill, or at least as carrying out an understandable response to "Israeli agression." Reuters even famously refuses to call them "terrorists," and many left-wing publications, from CounterPunch to the Nation, regularly treat Israelis as the aggressors and Palestinians as the victims. So do many professors of Middle East studies throughout North America.
In academe, in particular, there does not exist a widely-held position that would banish such displays, or react with outrage when they occur. Hence, President Gutmann's willingness to pose with this student, dressed as a suicide bomber, is most likely not the result of any desire on her part to get the photo taken and mingle, as Volokh says. Rather, it evinces a lack of moral opprobrium at such actions, and pertaining to this particular issue, among many of America's academic elite.
Update: Amy Gutmann has posted a statement at Penn's website:
Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.
The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.
I've just posted some additional thoughts on her statement (which I see as a moral dodge), especially for what this story tells us about Middle East studies, at Campus Watch.
Update II: Philadelphia KYW TV carried a story on the controversy earlier today.