We all know that commencement speeches are usually occasions for a lot of high-minded clichés and nonsense that will (mercifully) begin to fade from memory almost before the strains of Pomp and Circumstance have died down.
Brandeis University students were in for something very different this year, a commencement address by the courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has one of the most fascinating biographies of our time and who is an advocate for rights of women and girls who face oppression justified by religion or culture. In Hirsi Ali’s case, this generally means the Islamic religion and culture, which can be a great deal more threatening to women, body and soul, than the paper tiger of Western “patriarchal oppression” that animates most Western feminists.
In a provocative show of cowardice, the Brandeis administration cancelled Hirsi Ali’s address (along with an honorary degree for the Somali-born former Dutch parliamentarian who lives under a fatwa) because of intimidation by Muslim extremist groups.
Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal has printed what Hirsi Ali would have said and so now, because of the craven leadership at Brandeis, it is likely that more people will hear Hirsi Ali’s words than would have under ordinary circumstances.
Among other things, she said that that universities should be home to critical thinking:
We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged.
I'm used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen.
But of course she was shouted down before she even set foot on the campus of Brandeis. Her conclusion also has a bitter irony in the wake of Brandeis lack of courage:
I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women's and girls' basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.
The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.
So I ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Is it blasphemy—punishable by death—to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.
Is such an argument inadmissible? It surely should not be at a university that was founded in the wake of the Holocaust, at a time when many American universities still imposed quotas on Jews.
The motto of Brandeis University is "Truth even unto its innermost parts." That is my motto too. For it is only through truth, unsparing truth, that your generation can hope to do better than mine in the struggle for peace, freedom and equality of the sexes.
Brandeis knew before it invited Hirsi Ali what she has said, or should have, as she has been very public. We can only conclude that the university was frightened by Islamic extremists and agents of political correctness into withdrawing the ivitation. As a university, it should have stood up, admitted that Hirsi Ali is controversial in some circles and that some don't want to listen to what she has to say–much less debate her in civil discourse–and gone on with the speech. That would have been a fine moment for the academy. Instead we saw a fine university shame itself.
Brandeis was dealing mostly with an organized protest by Islamic extremist groups and likely some politically correct folks thrown into the mix, but the left as a whole has become intolerant of the free discussion of ideas.
What happened at Brandeis is part of a phenomenon that Charles Krauthammer today refers to as “the closing of the liberal mind.” We see this all the time nowadays when discourse is shut down, as it was at Brandeis. Krauthammer writes that “the left is entering a new phase of ideological agitation — no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition.”
Sometimes the word comes from on high, as when the president of the United States declares the science of global warming to be “settled.” Anyone who disagrees is then branded “anti-science.” And better still, a “denier” — a brilliantly chosen calumny meant to impute to the climate skeptic the opprobrium normally reserved for the hatemongers and crackpots who deny the Holocaust.
Victor Davis Hanson also had an excellent piece (“The New Inquisition”) on how the left shuts down dissent from its orthodoxy.
Most of us wonder how decent people let so many bad things happen in history. The administration of Brandeis has give us a little window into how people find themselves in situations that demand courage and then obfuscate the moral dilemma and make use that to make the craven choice.
I used the word "provocative" to describe Brandeis' cowardice. Given this trophy, Muslim extremists will continue censoring discourse in the United States.