"At Yale, if we stand for anything, we stand for the free expression of ideas."
--Yale political science professor Steven Smith
Does Yale in fact stand for free expression, or indeed for anything at all, apart from an undue sense of its own importance? These questions are very much up in the air after this month's release of a controversial book censored by Yale authorities, coupled with the author's return to the scene of the crime.
By now most WEEKLY STANDARD readers are aware of the ongoing dispute triggered by Yale's unprecedented, last-minute decision to strip all illustrations, including the relevant cartoon images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, from a scholarly work on the 2005-2006 Danish "cartoons crisis" (see Christopher Caldwell's "Might Makes Right: Yale University Press blinks," September 7, 2009 and his "Drawing Conclusions: A Danish political scientist revisits the cartoon controversy," October 19, 2009). Never mind that the book had been eagerly solicited, exhaustively vetted, and previously approved in its entirety. For reasons we will explore, Yale's most senior officials belatedly reneged on their previous commitment and ambushed the author with this ultimatum: no illustrations--or no book.
Earlier this month, author Jytte Klausen, a Brandeis political science professor and a Danish native, spoke at Yale in an appearance timed to coincide with the early release of the bowdlerized version of The Cartoons the Shook the World (originally slated for November). Yet by one of those coincidences that bedevil large institutions--where the left hand almost never knows what the right is doing--Klausen's appearance was almost completely upstaged by one of her own protagonists, the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. Perhaps one of the lessons of this dispute is that cartoonists (rather than tenured academics) are really the unacknowledged legislators of the world, at least in the eyes of undergraduates and street mobs.
It was Westergaard's appearance before a small, invitation-only gathering that drew national attention and provoked the noisiest challenge to free expression on the Yale campus. Yet for all Westergaard's notoriety--his was the dispute's iconic image provocatively featuring Mohammed with a turban made to resemble a bomb--his appearance drew only about 15 well-behaved protestors at an off-campus site chosen for security reasons. In fact, a visitor to the main campus--like this alumnus--would have been entirely unaware of this event except for the debate carried on in the news and opinion columns of the Yale Daily News.
To call what took place a debate, however, would be a stretch. An unscientific walkabout survey of undergraduate opinion found widespread awareness of the controversy, along with equally widespread indifference about the larger stakes as measured against more personal and immediate concerns. For all the support expressed for free expression in theory, there was also the complacent assumption that actually defending free expression is somebody else's job. The upshot is that one view was represented and went mostly unchallenged, except perhaps in private conversations. What passed for debate in the public forum proceeded along entirely predictable lines set by the prevailing orthodoxies of identity politics, on the one hand, and of the therapeutic culture, on the other. Rather than arguments based on logic and fact designed to persuade, there were instead expressions of hurt feelings meant to silence and shame, along with demands for protection from uncomfortable or inconvenient points of view. Consider these representative remarks, with key phrases underscored to minimize repetition. The Muslim Student Association pronounced itself "deeply hurt and offended." "As an institution purportedly committed to making our campus an educational environment where all students feel equally comfortable, we"--who? Yale or the MSA?--"feel that by hosting [Westergaard] Yale is undermining its commitment to creating a nurturing learning environment by failing to recognize the religious and racial sensitivity of this issue."
The same Professor Steven Smith who's quoted above was singled out for particular opprobrium as the master of the residential college responsible for inviting Westergaard to a master's tea (regularly scheduled and generally low-key events where students meet with interesting guests, including public figures). Smith heads up Branford College, one of 12 residential colleges where Yale undergraduates reside, dine, and engage in intramural activities like sports and drama.
Fatima Ghani, a senior, called for Smith's resignation as college master, saying: "A [residential college] master is entrusted with protecting the well-being of all Yale students and yet Smith gave a warm reception to a man racist toward members of the Yale community." Ditto Salah Ahmed, a junior: " Professor Smith is supposed to protect the students. Basically, by inviting a proven bigot, a proven hatemonger, I don't know what the professor was trying to do. I think the only point of inviting him here was to offend people. Why are we encouraging hate speech? It doesn't make sense."
The same view--that Yale's most basic obligation is to protect and affirm adolescent assumptions--was echoed by like-minded grownups who ought to know better. From the Yale college chaplains' office came this breathless missive: "Although we recognize that a single faculty member may have the right to invite anyone he chooses to speak on campus, we find this situation highly exasperating, given the significant efforts by the university to make the campus a place that truly welcomes and embraces those of every religion." It continues: "This event takes the focus off the most important facts: Yale is better off because of the contributions of its Muslim students, faculty and staff and the deepening understanding and appreciation of Islam."
Or again, Yale alumnus Sharyar Aziz: "I'm all for freedom of speech. But [the inevitable but] I'm deeply concerned that somehow an institution that has been so sensitive and so caring and so wonderful about the Muslim community in general and stuff they've done in the Middle East, that somehow this event creates an adverse environment or adverse opinion of Yale's sensitivities."
As it happens, it's precisely this "stuff they've done in the Middle East" that provides some necessary context for Yale's treatment of Klausen's book, especially given Yale's own incomplete and unconvincing explanations. In a nutshell, Yale now claims to have had second thoughts about the book over the summer for the stated reason that its publication might somehow provoke violence somewhere. Whether these second thoughts were spontaneous--or whether Yale was got at--remains open questions. In any case, Yale did not share these thoughts with the author, but instead sent off the cartoons--but not the page proofs of the already-approved book--to selected experts in "national security, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomacy, as well as in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies," according to the lengthy Publishers Note that prefaces Klausen's just-released book.
This unusual and secretive review process, inexplicably conducted behind the author's back, inspires little confidence that the university didn't simply order up pre-cooked conclusions from twenty or so "experts" chosen to tell Yale officials exactly what they wanted to hear. Of the six experts actually named in the university's August statement, three are current university employees, which is hardly a guarantee of objectivity and independent judgment. Another is helpfully identified as "the highest ranking Muslim at the United Nations" (who's keeping score?) and therefore unlikely to break ranks with the General Assembly majority or the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference in the matter of codifying Muslim blasphemy laws as new international legal norms sharply limiting free expression. The other two named experts are distinguished Yale alumni (one a former senior UN functionary, the other a popular pundit) whose views are worth taking into account, but are by no means the last word on this or any other subject.
In its August statement, Yale claims that its "decision rested solely on the experts' assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims" (emphasis added). This eminently debatable proposition was then communicated to the author as an ultimatum in circumstances that reflect little credit on those involved. When the director of the Yale University Press called the author to propose meeting for a cup of coffee in Boston, she was not told of the just-completed review of her book. Nor was she initially advised that Yale's second-ranking official would also attend this supposedly casual get-together, along with the chair of the Council of Middle East Studies at Yale (a medical anthropologist, as it happens).
What followed was the Don Corleone-style offer you can't refuse, made with the full authority of Yale's most senior officials. By long tradition, Yale's Vice President and Secretary of the Yale Corporation (the university's governing body) serves as the President's strong right hand, as well as the university's chief troubleshooter, fixer, consigliere--and keeper of secrets. It was in this latter capacity that this same official demanded that Klausen sign a confidentiality agreement before getting sight of an internal memorandum supposedly detailing Yale's reasoning and naming all the so-called experts. Klausen wisely refused, but nonetheless agreed to publication of her book on Yale's new terms. At this point, the Yale president's office discreetly exits stage left, leaving Yale University Press to play its assigned role as designated fall guy.
Yale's mishandling of this sorry episode comes as no surprise to those who follow these matters. Here's how Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson prefaced a generally positive account of an initiative undertaken last year by Yale's most luminous (part-time) celebrity, Tony Blair:
The American kickoff of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation last week unintentionally revealed the mountain of misunderstanding the former British prime minister has undertaken to scale. At an event designed to further mutual religious sympathy, two of the panelists--including the president of Yale University, Richard Levin--casually asserted that religious Americans who support pro-life restrictions on international family planning aid are as doctrinaire and exclusionary as Saudi extremists. Pro-life Catholics and evangelicals? Wahhabi extremists? What's the difference?
Clearly, mutual religious sympathy has a ways to go in places such as Yale.
Mutual religious sympathy? Or is it rather a case of fear and ignorance towards religion and religious believers among Yale's top officials--except, however, regarding "the stuff they've done in the Middle East"? For this same stuff includes Yale's longtime pursuit of funding from Middle Eastern sources, specifically including Saudi King Abdullah's egregiously philanthropic nephew, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.
This particular potentate is perhaps best known for his proferred $10 million donation to New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a donation that then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani rightly spurned after the prince claimed that the U.S. "must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack." In particular, the prince helpfully explained, the U.S. "should re-examine some of its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause," further elaborating that "our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the Israelis while the world turns the other cheek." Small wonder these sentiments provoked widespread outrage at a time when the wreckage of the Twin Towers was still smoldering.
In the academy, however, Al-Waleed bin Talal is rather better known for bestowing his largesse on favored academic institutions, including $20 million grants for Islamic studies to Harvard and Georgetown in 2005. It so happens that Yale was a disappointed also-ran in the highly-publicized, two-year-long competition that the prince staged before making these two selections from a list that also included Michigan and the University of Chicago, among others. But hope springs eternal; and it also happens that the prince's chief fixer, one Muna AbuSalayman, recently arrived in New Haven as a "Yale World Fellow," the grand designation for worthy do-gooders engaged in approved causes that Yale selects for an agreeable one- or two-semester sojourn on campus. How exactly Ms. Salayman--described in a fawning profile as the "Saudi Oprah"--landed this sinecure remains a mystery, as all the other Fellows are highly credentialed figures working for well-recognized institutions (like the World Bank) or causes (like press freedom). Ms. Sulayman, by contrast, works for a family (the al Saud dynasty) with a seat at the UN and the self-appointed mission to spread a sectarian religious ideology (Wahhabism) by means that include funding intellectually and morally compromised centers for Islamic studies at otherwise distinguished institutions.
While Yale's financial woes mount (its endowment dropped by 30 percent last year), Al-Waleed bin Talal's generosity proceeds apace, with £8 million gifts in May 2008 for both Cambridge University and the University of Edinburgh, also for Islamic studies. It's in precisely this context that Yale's incomplete and unconvincing explanations of its own actions in the Klausen debacle have inevitably fueled speculation on campus about what Yale's really up to. One wag suggested that the naming rights for Yale's two new residential colleges--the possible choices are more closely held than the Klausen memorandum--might actually be in play. In light of the ongoing courtship of the Saudi prince, the same source suggested Mecca and Medina as possibilities until being reminded that all of the existing colleges are named for distinguished Yale alumni. In that case, another source suggested that there might be a certain symmetry between colleges bearing the names of theologians Jonathan Edwards and Ezra Stiles and the new colleges named in honor of, say, two of the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. In any case, there is a sense that the Klausen saga is by no means over and that other shoes have yet to drop.
Normally, what happens in New Haven, stays in New Haven. And the rest of us should be grateful to be spared dreary campus politics and petty administrative pratfalls. But the Klausen case urgently demands a fuller airing, both on the merits and as a result of Yale's prominence on the national scene. But that in turn depends on the university being prompted to make a much fuller disclosure of its own internal deliberations and a much better public case in its own defense. Meanwhile, Professor's Smith's apt remark, reformulated as a question, helps clarify the stakes. If Yale doesn't stand up for free expression, does Yale really stand for anything at all?
John F. Cullinan, a Yale alumnus and lawyer, writes frequently on international religious freedom issues, including Muslim blasphemy laws.