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!
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.


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!).

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!

Lester Hunt said...

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