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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 pulling 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 She wrote that Brandeis had withdrawn the honor “having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement.”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.

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.

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!

Worst Article of the Week?

So many contenders this week!

Was it the Daily Beast piece implying that the former Bradley Manning will enjoy going to prison for the rape? The Daily Caller HotTake that Barack Obama is the first female president? The latest Maureen Dowd disaster, this one driven entirely by an egregious misquote that spawned a correction almost as long as the column?

And that’s to say nothing about the self-righteous pearl-clutching that just about every sports columnist heaved at Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. Good thing it’s August and half of America is on vacation.

 

Imitation/Flattery Department: Philly.com Edition

“Charlie Manuel: An Appreciation”- Stephen Silver, The700Level.com, Wednesday, August 21:

He was as un-Philly as can be, a man who didn’t talk or act anything like a “Philly guy.” He was 60 when he was hired but could have passed for a decade older. Manuel spoke with a heavy regional accent of a region that is not ours...

“Charlie Manuel: An Appreciation”- Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial, Thursday, August 22:

Charlie Manuel’s accent is not a Philly accent. One of the skipper’s stars recently summed up the city’s initial assessment of his Southern inflections, stammering delivery, and carefree approach to grammar.

Recent Clip Roundup: Philly Post Edition

I’m still writing my weekly column for Philadelphia Magazine’s Philly Post website, and very much enjoying it. Here are some of my recent pieces:

- Why you shouldn’t worry too much about the Sixers’ owners purchase of the New Jersey Devils.

- My report from the recent convention, in Philadelphia, of the Society of American Baseball Research.

- Another look at the Obama/McNabb parallel. 

- A funny look at that guy whose PayPal statement said his balance was $92 quadrillion. 

- Why Philllies fans don’t hate Ryan Howard. 

- Why I hate the “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign. 

- On the retirement of Michele Bachmann. 

- A review of the first day of Dick Morris’ local radio show. 

I’m always looking for material for the column, so email me (stephensilverwriter at gmail.com) if you have any Philly stories I should know about.

Recent Clip Roundup: Good Men Project Edition

I realize I’ve been way behind on posting links to my articles lately, so I thought I’d go publication by publication over the next few days. First, The Good Men Project, where I’ve been writing sports pieces lately.

First, I, like every other writer in the world, weighed in on Johnny Manziel and “Character Questions.” I really wish I’d dug more into his family, and discovered, as Timothy Burke of Deadspin did, that Manziel’s clan is basically Boyd Crowder’s family from Justified.

And last week, I wrote about controversy surrounding the Eagles’ Riley Cooper and his recent racial slur. “But,” I know you’re asking, “what about rappers?”