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 She wrote that Brandeis had withdrawn the honor “having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement.”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