Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali is wrong, and her supporters are even more wrong 

When I first wrote last week about the controversy involving my alma mater, Brandeis University, awarding and then pulling an honorary degree from the controversial human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, my feelings on the matter were somewhat mixed. But having seen the reaction from Hirsi Ali herself, and from some of her laughably overzealous supporters, they’re not so mixed anymore.

As you know if you’ve been following this, Brandeis announced that it was the degree on April 8, after first announcing it the month before. However, Hirsi Ali had been announced as an honorary degree recipient, and NOT as the commencement speaker. School reform activist and Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada was announced as the speaker March 31. This distinction is important, for a couple of reasons.

Hirsi Ali issued a statement April 9 responding to Brandeis pulling the degree. She wrote that Brandeis had withdrawn the honor “having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement.” She went on to state that “The ‘spirit of free expression’ referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here,” and that “my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.”

She went on, a few days later, to publish an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, under the headline “Here’s What I Would Have Said at Brandeis.” The introduction referred to the speech as “an abridged version of the remarks she planned to deliver.”

The problem here, as I don’t believe anyone who has written about this in any major publication has pointed out? Ayaan Hirsi Ali was never scheduled to speak at Brandeis’ commencement. At no point did the university announce that she would address the commencement ceremony- she was to be one of five honorary degree recipients, and Canada was announced as the speaker. And at Brandeis, it is not customary for honorary degree recipients, with the exception of the designated commencement speaker (and a chosen student speaker), to address the graduates.

Therefore, she was not silenced, or censored, or prevented from speaking. The pulling of the degree had nothing to do with preventing her from giving a commencement speech, because she was never scheduled to give such a speech in the first place. But “they silenced me” is a much more sympathetic-sounding lament, I suppose, than “they didn’t give me this meaningless degree.”

In fact, Hirsi Ali’s words and views have reached a substantially larger audience as a result of Brandeis pulling the degree as they would have had they granted it as scheduled. That may very well be the best break she’s ever gotten in her career.

Either she misunderstood the invitation, or perhaps she was scheduled to address a departmental or sub-commencement (as honorary degree recipient Leon Wieseltier did last year.) Or perhaps this was a deliberate attempt by Hirsi Ali and her supporters to imply something that is simply false. Which really goes to her credibility as a whole (and that, for that matter, of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.)

Of course, if Hirsi Ali has been dishonest, her supporters have been downright insane. A staff editorial in the online Jewish magazine Tablet deemed Brandeis’ move a “Soviet-style tactic,” because if nothing else the USSR was notorious for flip-flopping on giving out honorary college degrees. The demented, Muslim-hating blogger Pamela Geller, writing for Breitbart.com, likened Brandeis’ move to “slavery.” And most indefensibly of all, Zev Chafets of Foxnews.com likened the pulling of the degree to an “honor killing.” An honor killing, in case you’re not aware, is an actual murder. 

Whether or not Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves an honorary degree is something on which reasonable people can disagree. But comparing it to some of history’s greatest atrocities strikes me as an over-reaction by a factor of about a million.

I reiterate a few things I said the first time I wrote about this: Honorary degrees are a meaningless sham, which don’t matter in the slightest or have any effect on anything. Brandeis screwed up royally in that they didn’t appear to do any level of due diligence on this, nor have any idea that they were walking into a huge controversy. And while I certainly find many aspects of Hirsi Ali’s biography admirable, try taking a few of her statements, changing “Muslim” to “Jew,” and see how they sound. It probably wouldn’t result in many honorary degrees, especially not from Brandeis.

The Brandeis/Hirsi Ali Controversy: Ten Thoughts From an Alum

Brandeis, my alma mater, made news this week when it first awarded, and then rescinded, an honorary degree for the Somali-born author and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Here are a few scattered thoughts on this:

1. Honorary degrees are a sham. They’re completely meaningless. They’re a way for universities to aggrandize themselves and give attention and unearned accolades to a bunch of celebrities that would better be granted to the accomplishment of the graduates themselves. It always particularly upset me that an honorary degree is called “Brandeis University’s highest honor.” Why isn’t Brandeis’ highest honor an actual degree from Brandeis, accomplished through four years of study, rather than a fake certificate, presented by a committee?

2.  The school should have done their homework, and known this would cause a problem which, once again, is taking the focus away from the people who are actually graduating. They put themselves in a position that they’re going to piss off a whole lot of people whether they give the degree, or don’t give it. Just a bungling all around.

3.  Then again, I don’t see how giving or not giving Hirsi Ali the degree is a horrible outrage because, once again, honorary degrees mean nothing.

4. Commencement speaker/honorary degree controversies were a yearly tradition when I was at Brandeis. Usually the problem was that the speaker the school chose wasn’t famous enough. “We pay $30,000 a year!,” I heard students say many times. “Why can’t we have a speaker as cool as the one my friends at Harvard got?” And yes, I know Brandeis now costs a whole lot more than $30,000; that talking point hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.

5.  I read Hirsi Ali’s book years ago, and my opinion of her is mixed. She went through a horrible ordeal in her youth- and her advocacy for women, and against female genital mutilation is greatly admirable.

6. But at the same time, she’s said a whole lot of awful things, including that the West is (or should be) at war with Islam. Take some of the things she’s said, change “Muslim” to “Jew,” and see how that sounds. It probably wouldn’t lead to very many honorary degrees, especially not from Brandeis. She’s also spent a great deal of time telling some of worst elements in American political life everything they want to hear, including this nonsense about “creeping sharia.” Loathsome, warmongering vermin like Bill Kristol, Pamela Geller and John Bolton are huge, huge fans.

7.  In her statement after the decision, Hirsi Ali said that Brandeis was “planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement” and that Brandeis and her critics “simply wanted me to be silenced.” Wrong and wrong. She was never scheduled to be the commencement speaker, and pulling an honorary degree from someone- especially when coupled with an invitation to speak at a later date- is in no way “silencing” them. Once again- criticism and rebuking are not censorship, and they’re not silencing either.

8. The actual commencement speaker is Geoffrey Canada, the school reform activist and charter school founder. What, no lefty backlash against a guy who’s done his share of battle against teacher’s unions? 

9. Brandeis has had a lot of incidents lately in which two of its biggest traditions- left-wing politics and Zionism- have clashed, and this is another. I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future, and it saddens me.

10. Why can’t Brandeis ever make the news for anything positive? Just in the last few years we’ve had the post-Madoff scandal near-selloff of the art collection, the al-Quds controversy, Jehuda Reinharz’s donkey debacle, and now this.

Year-End Movies and More

In case you missed it last week, here’s my top ten movies list for the year, which is led by “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

New recent reviews include “American Hustle,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and a roundup of recent video/Netflix viewings.

And switching gears, here’s the year-end blog post from Noah and Jonah.

Tea Party Scams Are the Best

I’m on a lot of Tea Party email lists for some reason- I guess they love to troll journalists. I got this one earlier today:

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Because that doesn’t sound questionable or shady at all!

The Tea Party: It’s the Publishers Clearing House of politics.

UPDATE: I Googled around to see if this thing has been published anywhere else. See if you can guess what the first result was.

Ann Coulter vs. Me

Big career highlight for me tonight: I’ve had my words twisted in a column by the original conservative Internet troll, Ann Coulter!

Writing in her syndicated column in response to various media reports that that whole Knockout Game thing may have been a tad overblown, the fading diva of the right has this to say about my Phillymag piece on the subject- you know,  the one from three weeks ago:

Similarly, in Philadelphia magazine, Stephen Silver said of two recent knockout attacks in Philadelphia that he wasn’t counting either one as “confirmed cases of the Knockout Game” on the grounds that the puncher said he “was not participating in the Game.”

Let’s go back  to the real column:

Philadelphia police sources told the Daily News in an article published Monday that there has been one — that’s right, one — confirmed case of the Knockout Game in the city among recent assaults, a Fox Chase man. (The suspect in the high-profile Broad Street Puncher case, according to a SEPTA spokeswoman quoted by this website last week, was not participating in the “Game.”)

The first part of the quote is attributed, by me, to Philadelphia police sources, speaking to the Daily News. The second part is attributed to a SEPTA spokeswoman. I didn’t count them as cases of the Knockout Game because the police didn’t either.

If Coulter doesn’t think the police are doing a good enough job of making sure everyone is scared of young black men, her argument should be with them, and not with the “liberal media” or the author (me) who quoted them.

I mean, it’s almost as if the woman who accused 9/11 widows of enjoying their husband’s deaths isn’t interested in fealty to the facts .

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Recent Stuff

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah to all! It’s been a crazy fall, but I’m exciting for a long Thanksgiving weekend with family.

Here’s a roundup of some recently-published stuff:

- I returned to Philadelphia Magazine’s website this week with a piece about the so-called “Knockout Game,” which drew the most unhinged comments of anything I’ve ever written that didn’t involve the Penn State scandal. In my entire two years as a columnist on the Phillymag site I never once had the #1 story on the site; my first freelance piece has been that since yesterday.

- I also put together a list, for EntertainmentTell, of the best non-Sandler Hanukkah songs.

- I’ve been getting Oscar screeners for the first time ever, but before I delve into those, some recent movie reviews. You can see all of the latest ones at my Rotten Tomatoes page.

- Do please check out EntertainmentTell itself, as well as the parent TechnologyTell site; we’ve been growing all year and adding writers, and we’ve got much bigger things planned for 2014.

Thanks for your support everyone, and have a happy holiday season!