In the matter of Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Dear President Lawrence:
I know that many critics have expressed outrage that you rescinded your invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a courageous women’s rights crusader and critic of Islam, to receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University’s graduation this spring.
I won’t badger you by adding my voice to those who believe you succumbed to political correctness and interest group pressure in deciding that Islam is beyond the pale of legitimate inquiry. Nor will I echo the obvious point that such a decision is particularly appalling for a university president, for a campus is precisely the place to encourage free discussion even on controversial matters.
Nor, I’m sure, do I need to remind you that Hirsi Ali fights against female genital mutilation that has maimed and traumatized more than 100 million women and girls around the world; created the AHA Foundation “to protect and defend the rights of women and girls in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture;” fled Somalia to escape an impending arranged marriage; served in the Dutch Parliament until death threats forced her flight to the United States; published several compelling books on her life; and received numerous awards for courage.
Instead, I take you at your word about this incident and, based on your standard, offer a few thoughts about how you might address past wrongs that Brandeis has perpetrated, though perhaps unwittingly.
In its April 9 statement that presumably reflects your views, the university said the following about Hirsi Ali:
“She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”
If I understand, then, you bestow honorary degrees not just based on someone’s extraordinary achievements but, more broadly, also based on one’s “past statements” that must reflect Brandeis’ “core values.”
Fine. I trust, then, that in the spirit in which you disinvited Hirsi Ali, you are open to withdrawing honorary degrees to previous recipients who either did not meet this standard or no longer do.
Others have asked, in light of your “core values,” why Brandeis conferred an honorary degree in 2006 on Tony Kushner, the playwright who called Israel a mistake and accused it of ethnic cleansing; or in 2000 on Desmond Tutu, who compared Israel to Hitler and said Holocaust victims should forgive the Nazis. I don’t blame you for those decisions, recognizing you’ve been president only since 2011, but I trust that you’re considering retroactive action.
In that spirit, I urge you to focus on George Kennan, who received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 1958. I recognize that he was the Foreign Service’s most distinguished alum; served as Ambassador to Moscow and Belgrade; wrote the most influential diplomatic cable (the “Long Telegram”) in history; provided the intellectual framework for the “containment” policy that worked so well against the Soviet Union for half a century; and later distinguished himself at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Unfortunately, as we now know, he was not just a raging anti-Semite but a far broader bigot (against, among others, Italians, Georgians, and Iraqis); was strangely hostile toward the nation he long represented; and didn’t believe in democracy, preferring an “inherited oligarchy” or other unelected body. Because bigotry, anti-Americanism, and aristocracy cannot possibly reflect your “core values,” I await your speedy redress.
I also want to make sure you’ve got the whole story on Averell Harriman, who received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 1967. Yes, he was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow and London, Commerce Secretary, and Special Representatives in Europe for the Marshall Plan; served a term as New York’s governor; and was a roving ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
But, in cautioning Presidents Roosevelt and Truman about Moscow’s global designs as World War II was ending, he warned, repeatedly, that the United States and its allies faced a “barbarian invasion of Europe.” Because such language about the Soviets and their Communist underlings surely doesn’t reflect the “core values” of Brandeis, I can only assume that you’ll rethink this ill-considered degree.
Finally, I want to round out your view of Harry Belafonte, who received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 1991. Yes, his “Banana Boat Song” is infectious, and he performed laudable work as an early supporter of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
But, perhaps you don’t know that he later described African-Americans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as “slaves” who lived in the “house” of “master” George W. Bush; called Bush the “greatest terrorist in the world;” expressed support for the Jew-baiting, America-hating Venezuela strongman Hugo Chavez; and suggested that President Obama “work like a third-world dictator” and jail his opponents. I trust that any of those incidents might violate your “core values.”
I eagerly await your next step.
Lawrence J. Haas
Lawrence J. Haas was communications director and press secretary for Vice President Al Gore. Haas writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs and is the author of "Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion." Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.