Behind the Comedy of Soul Experts

There is an apocryphal story of Richard Wagner when he made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. The groundskeeper keeper asked, “do not these fantastic gardens ’neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?” Wagner muttered something in German. “He say,” said Wagner’s translator, “‘How about that?’” How about that, I thought, when I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali was refused an honorary degree from Brandeis University.

How she must feel after Brandeis University, which had announced plans to award her an honorary degree at its commencement ceremony next month, is beyond me. But when the university changed its mind this last week it was a compelling example of how university’s had ceded their gatekeeping function for the public forum to other parties. I cannot wait for an oblivious work by a Brandeis faculty member lamenting the fall of the university from its perch as purveyor of the intellectual landscape. “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,” the university said in a statement. But the school “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” The news of this reprehensible insult has gone around the world, turning, as Hirsi Ali herself put it, an intended honor “into a moment of shaming.”

The Orwellian double-speak latent in the university’s announcement is laudable in its sheer quantity. Her contributions to defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world are indistinguishable from the certain past statements–agree with her or not her promotion of women’s rights is conducted exclusively through a thorough critique of modern and historical Islam. The university tries to avoid taking the bitter with the sweet and ends up making a (deliberate?) hash of the person they ostensibly sought to honor.

Many media outlets expressed little outrage in the case. Apparently, the trigger words had not been spoken. Trigger words? Remember The Manchurian Candidate? George Axelrod’s splendid 1962 film, or its remake with Denzel Washington (side note, dear reader, the remake would never have been composed in today’s atmosphere–imagine the howls of outrage from MSNBC if a movie had a black man, assassination and the Presidency as the plot points?) where the brainwashed (by North Koreans) protagonist can only be set in murderous motion when the gracious garden-club lady, played by Angela Lansbury, says, “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”

The trigger words, it seems, are usually racial of some sort. Jonathon Chait has a mildly interesting article about that dynamic. Where are the accusations of racism and rebuttals of race-blindness even though, as Chait’s heavy-lifting anecdotes make clear, they are apparently all around us? Has post-racial utopianism found a Foucault-like oasis of actuality at Brandies University? I have my assumptions and I worry from time to time that no manner or quantity of facts will change them. But at least I’m honest about them. For what it’s worth I think it is notable that even though we have a generally all-white staff discrimination against a vulnerable minority there will be no significant backlash because it essentially confounds the parameters that Chait sets up for the racial debate.

Incidentally that’s where his analysis is crippling short: he is completely right when he is discussing the arena he defines, but at times his definition becomes tautological. In his view discussing race defines his ‘political arena’ and the ‘political arena’ defines race. When an instance comes up, like Hirsi Ali, where a black woman becomes a causality in a white faculty’s siege on academic freedom (to reduce this complex situation to racial terms) and there is no serious discussion about race (or alignment along the racial conversation) then what is the reader supposed to conclude? To my mind, Hirsi Ali’s position is illuminating because it straddles a lot of political fault lines. The place of religion in society, especially Islam, intellectual and academic freedom, the function and dysfunction of modern universities and women’s rights. Yet even where there is some racial discussion it hardly seems constrained to a partisan divide of ‘this must have been a raced based decision’ or ‘this must not have been.’ So the reader must conclude that these situations, if we are to take Chait’s ancedotes at full value, are in some sense… Apolitical? Not partisan? I’m not sure, but I get a feeling that there is some sort of blinkering going that reveals itself after a few minutes of serious consideration.

There were some predictable and not so predictable responses from authors somewhere to the right. There is something to be said, flat denials aside, for both accepting that race is at play but at some point acknowledge that a crippled reform effort is a terrible parting gift for any President. But more importantly Chait cannot shake the assumption that there has to be only one story; one group of incredible innate racists wants to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in racism. From the beginning, it was ordained that opposition to Chait’s personal predilections and the New Yorker’s as a whole was to have no coherent motive for what they had done other than a Shakespearean motiveless malignity. Iago is now back in town, with a dog whistle, not a handkerchief.

More to the point, he and the board agreed that the conservatives had no serious accomplices because they were, themselves, unserious. His evenhandness cannot escape those assumptions and subsequently comes off as brittle. ‘Racists exist because they exist!’ Seems to be the extent of the analysis. Yawn. It is assumed a group could not be both racially sensitized and fall on the ‘right’ side of the left-right divide that still unironically divides discussion in the humorless New Yorker. Well, unless you’ve adopted something complicated and foreign sounding like Hirsi Ali as a movement sobriquet. But in that case you can be ignored from the save, suburban heights.

This assumes that there is the possibility that there are readers like you, dear reader, who has time for carefully considering an article. Is that still true? It is all about consuming these days. Every time I hear the word I wince, as if people communicating to each other was only hay and a barn for human cattle in need of precious intellectual stimulation. But I’ll save that discussion for another day…

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