Frankly, some people simply don’t deserve to speak

Over at Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne implicitly compares the Rutger University student body’s protests against Condoleeza Rice being invited to speak at their commencement (and her eventual withdrawal) to Brandeis College’s recent withdrawal of a speaking invitation and honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, well-known atheist activist, author and critic of Islamic oppression, in response to pressure from an Islamic lobby group. Towards the end, Prof Coyne states:

I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own.

Now, I’m not sure what the deal is in US universities and how important commencement or graduation addresses and speakers actually are, but I think listing Rice’s withdrawal from a speaking engagement in the face of student and faculty protests along with Brandeis’ shameful behaviour in response to Islamic censors is something of a false comparison. I think that students and staff should have the right to object to a prospective speaker and I commented thusly (with edits marked):


The administration Rice was part of was a shameful era in US [and global] politics. She enabled and participated in some of the most egregious illegality and brutal imperialism that country’s ever engaged in. It’s gratifying that people of a younger generation realised that and let their school know that they did not want to hear from her on such a significant day – that they did not consider her an aspirational figure, someone to be emulated, someone to be looked up to, someone with an honourable legacy.

I can understand the “forget her politics and let her speak” point of view, but that’s hard to do. It’s not like her politics are some mere abstract difference of opinion – her politics enabled her to rise to her position in the GOP and the Bush administration; her politics informed her decisions and actions while she was there. Rice’s “politics” had real, measurable and tragic consequences for untold numbers of innocent people – it’s not “PC gone mad!!1” to point this out and object to it, it’s completely justifiable. Also, considering the extreme unlikelihood of Rice (or any of her co-conspirators) ever being held to account in court for their crimes while in office, having students successfully object to you speaking at their event is a miniscule price to pay. [I’m sure a conservative heroine like Rice has more than enough invitations to sort through.]

And I’m afraid I can’t accept this student protest as anything approaching equivalency with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s disinvitation by Brandeis [I don’t know anything about the other people on the list in the OP so I’ll not comment]. Students objecting en masse to the presence of a speaker who participated in a demonstrable breach of international law is not comparable to a college board withdrawing an invitation in response to pressure from a typically thin-skinned Islamic lobby group (also, Brandeis have censored Ali’s film “Honour Diaries” in which she documents Islamic oppression, on the grounds that it would offend Muslims). Brandeis are far more guilty of censorship and “PC gone mad” than are the student body of Rutgers – it’s their day and they expressed their opinion of a speaker.

Finally, I would only consider Obama speaking instead (for example) as a minor improvement on Rice. He’s expanded the drone-murders and the illegal domestic surveillance, kept Gitmo open, kept the PATRIOT Act and more or less kept or expanded all of the Bush era’s anti-human policies and it was his government that rewarded the banks responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 with a $700 billion bailout. He’s no lefty by any means, he’s centrist at best and corporatist all the way through.

An interesting post-script to this is that the LA Times piece Prof Coyne links to doesn’t just mention Rice’s withdrawal in the face of protests, it lists a few other notables who’ve been protested against after being named as speakers:

Comedian Ben Stein [is] among the small group to see their invitations revoked after protests.

Stein had been tapped to speak at the University of Vermont commencement in 2009, but his denunciation of the theory of evolution caused concern among the community.

Now, Stein hasn’t been seen around much since his hateful, paranoid lie-fest of a propaganda piece, 2008’s “Expelled” (which was rife with dishonesty even before it started filming, the producers going to the lengths of lying to people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins about its title and content to secure their involvement), but I’ve covered him before. Stein didn’t just “denounce the theory of evolution” either, he flat-out lied about what it says, what it doesn’t say and more or less blamed it for the Jewish Holocaust, saying on a Christian TV show on the Trinity Broadcasting System: “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.”

I don’t recall Prof Coyne or anyone else objecting to the protests against Stein; indeed, in this piece here he takes a swipe at infamous creationist attack-gerbil and Discovery Institute lawyer-not-scientist Casey Luskin for sticking up for Stein. Casey had written that by revoking Stein’s invitation to speak, the University of Morris was “discriminating against scholars who hold a minority scientific viewpoint.” Prof Coyne responded thusly:

Let’s be clear: creationism is not a “minority scientific viewpoint.” It is not a scientific viewpoint at all. Protesting creeping creationism is not suppression, it is our duty as scientists.

So protesting against a known liar and propagandist against science is a matter of duty, but protesting against a known liar, propagandist and violator of human rights and international law is a case of overbearing political correctness? Protesting creeping creationism is a moral obligation and protesting the validation of neo-conservative murder and human rights violations is just, what, ideological whinging? Stein’s demonisation of science was a blatant falsehood aimed at existing true believers and which had little impact outside the bubble of US Christian creationism; the rapacious neo-conservatism of 2001-2008 actually did lead to killing people.

Invoking “Commencement Police” and calling Rutgers’ student body (and faculty, in the case of Rice) “fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent – unless it’s their own” misses the mark, I think. These are people – not just bright-eyed ideological kids, but staff and professors – taking a stand against validating, even rewarding a person whose public record of words and behaviour is orders of magnitude more damaging than those of Ben Stein. We should be applauding them and lauding their strength, not assigning them epithets and accusing them of fragility.

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