Signing on to FEAR

Peter Wood

Yesterday, I added the National Association of Scholars to the list of organizations that endorses the AAUP’s new “statement of principle,” Free Expression at Risk, at Yale and Elsewhere. Among the other sixteen signatory organizations are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Modern Language Association, and the People for the American Way. This is somewhat unfamiliar company for the NAS, but our friends, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, are also on the list. 

Free Expression at Risk—FEAR—starts with the premise that “the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence.” It is a premise that deserves skeptical scrutiny, not least because “spreading fear of violence” is so often misused by campus groups. It gets used by feminist groups eager to promote the false idea that there is an epidemic of violence against women on campus. It gets used by gay and lesbian groups demanding “safe spaces” on campus, as though colleges were rife with violence against homosexuals. Moreover, the “fear of violence” is often cited by the campus Left as a pretext for disinviting speakers or shutting down events that have no hint of violence in them at all, but are simply expressions of controversial ideas. The “fear of violence” meme has also gets blurred by those who conflate aggressive imagery with actual violence. “Symbolic violence” isn’t violence. It may be tasteless, offensive, degrading, or a lot of other things; it may just be Three Stooges-style slapstick. But only under very particular circumstances does “symbolic violence” rise to the level of an actual threat of bodily harm. 

So when the AAUP writes about “a spreading fear of violence” impeding the free exchange of ideas, I do not instantly assent. I want to know what alleged threats the AAUP is referring to and whether those threats have indeed hindered free expression. And is the AAUP, as is frequently its wont, exaggerating the situation?

Let’s hold a moment on the question of exaggeration. On the essential issue, the AAUP has it right. Front and center is the case of Yale University Press and Yale University itself deciding to suppress the images of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale gave no explanation for its actions, other than its fear of provoking violence, were the cartoons and other images of Mohammed to go to press. To my knowledge, Yale wasn’t actually threatened with violence.  Its decision was an act of preemptive capitulation to Muslim radicals. 

So yes, we have a dramatic instance of the free exchange of ideas—at a prestigious university press at one of the nation’s top universities—“falling victim to a spreading fear of violence.” 

Were this a one-off event, the behavior of particularly craven administrators at one institution, it would hardly make sense to describe the free exchange of ideas as “in peril.” So the burden of the AAUP statement is to show that the Yale cartoon scandal is part of a larger pattern.   I believe that it is. And I believe a strong statement of principle is warranted in response to that pattern. So the National Association of Scholars has endorsed the statement.

That said, FEAR is not faultless. As usual, the AAUP cannot resist the temptations of political correctness. The major threat of violence that hangs over the free expression of ideas in America and the West is the threat from Islamic extremists. The AAUP is not insensible to that reality. No sooner does FEAR mention Jytte Klausen’s book, than it turns to the infamous 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the murder by Islamic extremists of one of his translators. Of course, the AAUP, mindful of Muslim sensibilities, never identifies these threats as coming from Islamic extremists. In the case of Yale, the threat is that “someone, somewhere might respond with violence.” The fatwa against Rushdie might have been issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury for all we can tell from the AAUP statement.  The AAUP mentions 9/11, the bombings in Madrid and London, the murder of Theo Van Gogh, and other events perpetrated by Islamic extremists without characterizing the perpetrators beyond the odd locution of those involved “in bringing terrorist violence to the heart of liberal democracies.”

Who are these bringers of “terrorist violence?” We all know, but the AAUP is too tender to say. The words “Islam” and “Islamic” are completely absent from the statement, and the word Muslim appears only once in connection with the exclusion of some paintings from an exhibit at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, “because of fears that the sexual overtones would be offensive to the large Muslim population in the area.” A fear of offending someone isn’t ordinarily to be equated with a fear of violence. At this moment, the AAUP’s mask slips, just a little. 

The AAUP’s evasiveness about the actual threat is accompanied by a good deal of misdirection in the form of citing non-Muslim cases. Was the cancellation (later rescinded) of a Manhattan Theatre Club production of Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, in 1998, really the results of “threats” from Catholics who found the play offensive? The New York Times reported that the theater had gotten a telephone call in which an unknown person threatened “to burn down the theater, kill the staff, and ‘exterminate’ Mr. McNally.” There were numerous doubts expressed at the time whether these threats were real or were just a publicity stunt. But OK, threats of violence were reported—and the show went on. 

Another instance that the AAUP statement offers to show that the free exchange of ideas has supposedly fallen victim to non-Muslim threats of violence is brought up in an oddly circumspect sentence: “In 2005, a politically controversial professor’s scheduled speech at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY was cancelled in response to threats of violence.” That politically controversial professor was Ward Churchill. His scheduled speech did indeed provoke controversy. Critics at Hamilton College pointed out his doubtful academic credentials and his questionable claims to Native American identity. The popular press expressed outrage over his demeaning (“little Eichmanns”) caricature of victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center. As the controversy raged on, the president of Hamilton College announced that she was cancelling the event. Hamilton College reported her statement on February 1, 2005: 

Cancellation of Panel Discussion on Limits of Dissent

We have done our best to protect what we hold most dear, the right to speak, think and study freely.

But there is a higher responsibility that this institution carries, and that is the safety and security of our students, faculty, staff and the community in which we live.

Credible threats of violence have been directed at the College and members of the panel. These threats have been turned over to the police.

Based on the information available, I have made the decision to cancel this event in the interest of protecting those at risk.

Joan Hinde Stewart


At the time, various observers expressed open doubt about Stewart’s motive. No evidence was forthcoming of “credible threats of violence.” There was never any police report, at least any that has surfaced. Bill O’Reilly opined on his television show that the college probably had received threats because there are always “a lot of deranged people running around,” but suggested that Stewart was more worried that “donations to the college would plummet, and so would her job security.” And there it ended.

The cancellation of Ward Churchill’s visit to Hamilton College, in order words, is not in the same league with Yale University censoring the pictures of Mohammed in Klausen’s book out of fear of provoking murderous mobs. We have Stewart’s word that there were “credible threats of violence,” but Stewart’s own credibility isn’t a settled matter. 

So the AAUP statement evades the central source of the problem and it clouds the issue by adding some dubious cases. It is also marred by the omission of some conspicuous instances in the last year, including the beating of Kenneth Gladney, a 130 lb diabetic, recovering leukemia patient, by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) thugs at an August forum sponsored by Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan. The union guys were upset that an African-American was supporting Tea Party protestors. Gladney had been handing out buttons that said, “Don’t Tread on Me.” So, naturally, that’s what the SEIU guys did once they had knocked him to the ground. This instance would seem to fit the story the AAUP is telling to a T. There is no doubt that free expression was imperiled and that violence was the tool. 

With all these flaws in FEAR, why put the National Association of Scholar’s name to it? I don’t think the flaws outweigh the main point. We in the West who have benefitted for generations from the free expression of ideas now face a serious erosion of that freedom. Our political and intellectual freedoms are intertwined on the trellis of free expression. The erosion isn’t all one thing.   The threat of violence coming mostly from Islamic extremists is a major part of it. But so is the cowardice cultivated by our elites and fostered in schools and colleges. Politically correct timidity, the fear of being called a racist, a bigot, or anything ending in the suffix “–phobe,” has already disposed many in the West to placate illiberal demands and extremist threats. Most “free expression” dies silently in the heads of people who dare not murmur anything against the orthodoxies of multiculturalism, diversity, and the other orthodoxies that frame respectable public debate. FEAR itself is shot through with these little acts of obeisance to Respectable Opinion.  

But Yale’s pandering was a pander too far for the AAUP and other guardians of enlightened cowardice.  

However tentative the AAUP’s step towards recovering moral gravity, it is a step in the right direction. If we can agree on little else, we can agree that we have to stand up to those who threaten violence to prevent the expression of ideas. And even more to the point, we have to stand up against those in our midst who quail in the face of threats, or even, as in the case of Yale, quail at the mere prospect of threats as yet unmade. To the extent that FEAR summons the academic community to courage rather than accommodation, it is an important step. And on those grounds, the National Association of Scholars supports it.

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