Friday, October 05, 2007

University of St. Thomas Disinvites Tutu

As many of you know, the administration of the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis has revoked an invitation to former Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak there next year. In a possibly unrelated development, the chair of the department that invited him has been removed as chair. Here is the story. (Hat-tip to Ruchira Paul for alerting me to it.)

I can't resist pointing out that the things the administration, and those sympathetic with its decision, said in defense of that decision were right out of the lexicon of "political correctness." That he has said things that are "offensive," things that are "hurtful" to Jews. Critics of their decision claim that he was disinvited simply for being critical of Israel. I'll post about this later.

Added later: I just want say two things about this. 1.) I doubt that it was just for criticizing Israel that he was disinvited. For many years, many Jews have found comments he has made offensive, and I don't think it is unreasonable to find them so. 2.) Nonetheless, he should not have been disinvited.

1.) The Wikipedia article about him says in part:
When lobbying for divestment at a 2002 conference in Boston, Tutu stated, "My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?" He continued by saying, "People are scared in this country [the US], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust." ... Tutu's comment about a "Jewish lobby " [in the print version of the speech, Tutu wisely changed the phrase to "pro-Israel lobby" -- LH], as well as some prior remarks, caused some offense, including by some who believed he was making a direct comparison of it to Hitler. Speaking in a Connecticut church in 1984, Tutu said that "the Jews thought they had a monopoly on God; Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings." In the same speech, he compared the features of the Temple in Jeursalem, Israel's holiest site, to the features of the apartheid system. In conversations during the 1980s with the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliahu Lankin, Tutu "refused to call Israel by its name, he kept referring to it as Palestine," Lankin recalled. In 1988, he rejected the charge of antisemitism, saying that criticism of the Israeli government is "immediately dubbed anti-semitic as if the Palestinians were not Semitic" by some.
One thing that is potentially offensive about some of these comments, and things he has said elsewhere, is his habit of indulging in sloppy moral equivalences: the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians is like the Nazis' treatment of them, Zionism is like racism, Israeli policy is morally evil in just the same way that Apartheid was, Israelis knocking a man's house down is like the same man blowing up Israelis with a bomb. Surely, there are different degrees of evil and injustice, and in all these cases there are obvious and profound differences that he does not seem to to care about very much.

Particularly annoying is his persistent tsk! for goodness sake! dismissiveness when Jews are offended by his comments. He seems to be a man who is so convinced of his own virtue that he literally can't believe it when others seem to find something about him morally objectionable. It must be the "Jewish" lobby! This guy would not survive as an assistant professor in a modern American university, with its speech codes and its atmosphere of heightened linguistic sensitivity. In my world, you might be forgiven for offending members of some protected group of people, but you had better show that you understand why they were offended by what you said!

Offensive in a different way is the following, also from the Wikipedia article:
During a 1989 trip to Israel's Yad Vashem museum, Tutu said, "We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer."
Now, I am sure that as a Christian clergyman he often has to advise somebody to forgive some past wrong and get over it. You should forgive the professor who gave you a B when you deserved an A. You should forgive your wife for having an affair with her tennis instructor. That is often very good advice. But to apply this to the Holocaust, and to say it to people who survived its horrors ... how many different things are wrong with that? (I leave this question as an exercise for the reader.)

2.) About Tutu I have somewhat the same problem that I had with Rumsfeld and Ahmedinejad: If I were voting on whether to bring him to my university, I would ask, rather skeptically, why we should expect him to say something that would advance the discussion of some subject that we find interesting or important. But of course St. Thomas is not Wisconsin. They would no doubt have different views from mine about who would be a good contributor in the academic forum. Fine. By inviting him in the first place, they have as an institution decided that he is a qualified contributor. In that context, to disinvite him can only mean that he is being barred on account of his having made comments like the ones quoted above.

My own view -- of course! -- is that none of these are reasons why someone should be barred from a university campus. He has said things that would be offensive to many (probably not all) of the Jews I have known. But that sort of thing is always true in free speech cases. No one was ever censored for giving no one cause to be angry.

Further, as I do with university speech codes, I doubt that the disinvitation was a good thing for the people who were supposed to be "protected" by it. I happen to know Jews who live in Minneapolis, and I bet they are rather uncomfortable right now, knowing that it was for their sake that this man was barred from St. Thomas. It's not a position I would want to be in, at all!
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Added still later: Maybe I should point out that I have said nothing about the one issue that most people are arguing about here -- whether Tutu is an anti-Semite. I think this issue is a red herring. For one thing, the St. Thomas administration was careful to avoid accusing Tutu of being an anti-Semite. In addition, the evidence I have seen so far suggests that the charge of anti-Semitism may represent the same sort of sloppy use of language of which he himself is chronically guilty. There is no smoking gun on this question. However, a case can be made that he indulges in the sort of behavior that can get a person into big trouble under a typical university speech code: chronic, targeted, unrepenting linguistic insensitivity toward a historically oppressed or persecuted group of people. In other words, the leftists who are attacking St. Thomas' decision (rightly, in my view!) ought to be against speech codes as well.

8 comments:

Micah Tillman said...

I find this rather surprising. I'll have to look into the story.

Lester Hunt said...

Note that I added most of this article after Micah Tillman's comment above. The additional material might remove the mystery (or maybe not!).

Ruchira Paul said...

I might have something a bit more substantive to add to this later but then again, as Lester said, may be not!

For now I ask, do most wives still have affairs with their tennis instructors? I thought the personal trainers now have that dubious honor. Also with most women in the work force these days, I hardly think that "hired help" is the only option out there.

Lester Hunt said...

Yes, "personal trainner" is much better. Too bad I didn't think of it! PS: I just realized I should add a hat-tip to you for alerting me to the story.

Micah Tillman said...

Thanks for the additions!

Ruchira Paul said...

Thanks Lester, for the last clarification. (I have to get used to your penchant for expressing yourself incrementally - first Vonnegut and now Tutu)

There something a bit dangerous and ludicrous about the Desmond Tutu fiasco. Unlike Ahmadinejad (anti-Semite with a modicum of power to act on his belief), David Duke (anti-Semite, mischief maker but politically defanged), Farrakhan (anti-Semite and completely delusional), Tutu is not looked upon by most of the world as an anti-Semite. His image is that of a humanitarian who suffered humiliations under a brutal regime and still remains a dedicated pacifist. (Somewhat like Gandhi who too had several warts on his saintly halo). When Tutu rails against Israel and invokes other nasty regimes, it falls in line with his other pronouncements. There is not much contradiction there. The guy speaks out whenever he perceives a powerful group exercising undue control over the destiny of a weaker one, whatever the transgressions of the latter. In that he is not very different from many of us. We forgive a lot in an underdog and the Palestinians have been the most pathetic underdogs for the longest time in the post WWII era. Many see in Israel's behavior the transformation from the "abused" to the "abuser" - a common enough phenomenon, but still tragic. And perhaps that is what Tutu means when he makes appeals to the history of Jewish suffering. As for his asking forgiveness for the Nazis, that too is a pattern. After all, this guy conducted the "Truth and Reconcilation" commission after Apartheid was dismantled in S. Africa. He faced his erstwhile tormentors, cried his eyes out in front of the world and never demanded revenge.

On to the greater topic of the Israel Lobby and anti-Semitism. Both are realities. There indeed is an Israel lobby and it is a powerful one (but not as powerful as the armament, pharmaceutical or the insurance lobbies). To deny that is to deny reality. But it is also important to note that most American Jews are not part of that lobby and many are actually quite opposed to its politics. Hence Israel lobbies such as the AIPAC do not by any stretch of the imagination equal the totality of American Jewish opinions. To believe that it does, indeed verges on anti-Semitism. So when Tutu says that the I.L. is powerful enough to silence the criticism of Israel, he is correct. But I hope he is not including all Jews in that camp.

As for anti-Semitism, it is real. But it is not as pervasive as some would have us believe. The Arab world and the worlds of Christian fanatics and white supremacist may be the only significant venues where old fashioned, Holocaust Denial, Elders of Zion brand of anti-Semitism persist. Europe has its own snobbery and vestiges of centuries old prejudices. But Europeans have learnt their lesson and if anything, they are now much more wary of the Islamic radicals in their midst. The rest of the world - and yes, there is a rest of the world - China, India (which together comprise 1/3 of the world population), non-Abrahamic Asia and I would suspect even most of Latin America, couldn't give a hoot about anti-Semitism and their politics don't hinge on that consideration. Some of them also criticize Israel. Therefore to constantly bring up the specter of anti-Semitism whenever Israel is challenged over its policies is in some cases a phantom. And when real and dangerous prejudice rears its ugly head, one may regret having cried wolf once too often.

Look, I am not saying that the Jew / Arab, Hindu / Muslim prejudices are not real. I have Arab friends who congratulate me that India "got rid of the Jews." I have to gently remind them that after India's independence in 1947 and the establishment of Israel in 1948, most left voluntarily. (Off topic: See my review of a book about Indian Jews - you might enjoy their little known history) I had a Israeli Jewish friend who refused to eat in a Palestinian own middle eastern restaurant even after I assured her that the Falafel and the Gyro were unimpeachable. I have seen Hindus and Muslims do similar stupidity with each other. But these are minor matters. Problems arise when our politicians and policy makers begin to think in that vein and the drumbeat of hate can cause incidents such as this. It is amazing that it is six years after 9/11 and people are still acting out their anger and paranoia. Could this incident have been justified if these elderly men (75 and 77 years old) had really been Muslims or Arabs instead of being victims of mistaken identity? Could this at least partially be the result of unnecessary hate mongering by our demagogic politicians?

But most people are capable of nuance and can separate the wheat from the chaff. The majority of my own middle aged, moderate American friends view radical Islamic philosophy as a real threat to our own safety (as do I). But at the same time they recognize that the American role in mid-east politics is one sided, avaricious and pernicious. No contradiction here.

But I agree with you whole heartedly that the left too must give up its own sacred cows and start growing a thicker skin. The knee jerk reaction to perceived insults and threats and sanctions on speech and thought must be pared down to the realm of common sense. Identity based political correctness has gone way too far. There is a distinction between being civil and unduly patronizing and we should be adult enough to recognize that. The attempt to ban Israeli scholars from academic forums is just as heinous as not allowing Desmond Tutu to speak.

Seasons change both in nature and in politics - what goes around, invariably comes around. (That's the only basic Hindu tenet I fervently believe in:-)

Whew, that is a LOT of comment! I hope you don't ban me now.

Lester Hunt said...

Ruchira, Wow, that's quite an epistle. I'll read it when I get a chance -- soon, I hope!

Ruchira Paul said...

I did say that I will add something "substantive" here, didn't I?

As for Lee Bollinger, do take his "courage" to take on Ahmadinejad with a pinch of salt. Bollinger does make distinctions between dictators - the petty ones and the ones with personality, guile and the ability to do "real" harm. Also, he recognizes a "favored" dictator when he sees one. (Sorry, I couldn't find a link to the print transcript) The guy clearly knows on which side his political bread is buttered. But he is not the first college president to play a deft political game nor will he be the last.