Is revoking invitations to controversial college commencement speakers the new McCarthyism?

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    In 1949, Wayne State University blocked an invited speaker from appearing on campus. The speaker was Herbert Phillips, and the reason was simple: Phillips was a Communist.

    In 1949, Wayne State University president David Henry blocked an invited speaker from appearing on campus. The speaker was Herbert Phillips, a well-known philosophy professor. And the reason was simple: Phillips was a Communist.

    “It is now clear that the Communist is to be regarded not as an ordinary citizen but as an enemy of national welfare,” Henry explained. “I cannot believe that the university is under any obligation in the name of education, to give him an audience.”

    I thought of this episode as I read about Brandeis University’s decision to withdraw its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the prominent women’s rights activist who was slated to appear at its commencement exercises this month. Then former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her scheduled address at last Sunday’s commencement at Rutgers. Together, they speak volumes about the sorry state of free speech at American universities.Rice withdrew from speaking–and from receiving her own honorary degree–after faculty and students protested her involvement in America’s war in Iraq. Citing Ali’s controversial remarks about Islam, meanwhile, Brandeis officials said Ali’s comments about Islam were “inconsistent” with its “core values.” But the core value of the university is—or should be—open dialogue and discussion. And it was Brandeis and the Rutgers protesters—not Ali and Rice—who violated it, just as universities did by keeping out Communist and other left-leaning speakers during the McCarthy era.

    A Somalian native who fled a forced marriage, Ali moved to Holland and was eventually elected to its Parliament. She also wrote the screenplay for a 2004 film about the treatment of Muslim women, which earned her death threats and led her to move to the United States.

    And in a 2007 interview, Ali called Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”; later that year, she told another interviewer that “there is no moderate Islam” and that it must be “defeated.”

    Over the top? Definitely. Offensive? I think so. But Ali’s comments hardly put her in the same category as Nazis or white supremacists, as several critics have recently charged. Unlike fascist ideologues, who stressed the second-class status of women and their duty to reproduce for the fatherland, Ali has spent her life fighting for female independence and equality.

    She has also been at the center of an ongoing debate about the degree to which Islam has enhanced or inhibited women’s rights. I was appalled by her blanket condemnation of the religion, which contains much more diversity than Ali allowed. But she has raised utterly legitimate questions, and the university should be in the business of exploring rather than quashing them.

    Ditto for Communists in the 1940s and 1950s, who raised tough issues about the morality of capitalism and its role in promoting imperialism. Some American Communists went to absurd lengths in apologizing for murderous behavior by the Soviet Union, to be sure, and a small number of them actually spied for the USSR. But they also had important things to say about economic and international affairs, if Americans cared to listen.

    At nearly all of our colleges and universities, they didn’t. Communist novelist Howard Fast was banned from speaking at Columbia and at my own institution, New York University. Likewise, the German Communist Gerhart Eisler was barred from the University of Michigan and several other schools.

    And it wasn’t just Communists who were kept out; so was anyone suspected of sympathizing with them. So Miner Teachers College—a historically black school in Washington, D.C.—blocked the writer Pearl Buck from speaking; another teachers’ college in California banned Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation; and Ohio State University turned away Cecil Hinshaw, a leading Quaker pacifist.

    Each situation was different, but the rationale was always the same: Communists (and their “fellow travelers”) were supposedly inimical to the essential mission of the institution. And it’s also what protesters at Notre Dame said in 2009, when the university tapped President Obama as its graduation speaker.

    Over 300,000 people signed a petition urging Notre Dame to revoke the invitation to Obama, a long-standing supporter of abortion rights. In hosting the President, the petition said, the institution was “betraying its Catholic mission.”But turning away Obama would have betrayed the university’s academic mission: to promote dialogue and understanding across our myriad differences. Fortunately, Notre Dame didn’t withdraw its invitation. Obama gave his address, and hundreds of graduates demonstrated their opposition to his abortion views by affixing pictures of baby feet to their motor boards.

    Rutgers officials likewise held firm in their invitation to Rice, despite a student sit-in and other protests against her. But Rice herself decided to withdraw from the event, declaring that commencement should be a “joyous celebration” and her participation had “become a distraction” from it.

    Wrong. Commencement is an academic event, and debate and controversy enhance it. When Rice gave the graduation address at Boston College in 2006, students and professors turned their backs on her and held up signs that read “Not in My Name” and “Life Isn’t 35,000 Dead.” Like Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, it was a truly “teachable moment”–not just about the war In Iraq, but about the larger value of speech and debate.

    That’s the core value of the university, and also of a liberal society. Too bad so many self-styled liberals at our universities seem to have forgotten it.

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