Bret Stephens got it right, although to be fair, it wasn’t really a hard question.
The presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania testified before a House committee on Tuesday about the state of antisemitism on their campuses. It did not go well for them.
Let’s assume, arguendo, that these are smart, capable women, How hard could it be to answer the question posed by Rep. Elise Stefanik, “whether ‘calling for the genocide of Jews’ violated the schools’ codes of conduct or constituted “bullying or harassment”? Yet, not one could bring themselves answer “yes.”
But the deep problem with their testimonies was not fundamentally about calls for genocide or free speech. It was about double standards — itself a form of antisemitism, but one that can be harder to detect.
The double standard is this: Colleges and universities that for years have been notably censorious when it comes to free speech seem to have suddenly discovered its virtues only now, when the speech in question tends to be especially hurtful to Jews.
Even Larry Tribe couldn’t bring himself to be the apologist for their bureaucratic gibberish replies in the time-honored campus rhetoric of obfuscation. But Michelle Goldberg, ever the adolescent, leaped into the fray to manufacture an excuse. They were “trapped.”
But while it might seem hard to believe that there’s any context that could make the responses of the college presidents OK, watching the whole hearing at least makes them more understandable. In the questioning before the now infamous exchange, you can see the trap Stefanik laid.
The problem, Goldeberg argues, isn’t their answers to a specific question, but the overall “context,” a word doing an awful lot of work at the hearing.
So later in the hearing, when Stefanik again started questioning Gay, Kornbluth and Magill about whether it was permissible for students to call for the genocide of the Jews, she was referring, it seemed clear, to common pro-Palestinian rhetoric and trying to get the university presidents to commit to disciplining those who use it. Doing so would be an egregious violation of free speech. After all, even if you’re disgusted by slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” their meaning is contested in a way that, say, “Gas the Jews” is not. Finding themselves in a no-win situation, the university presidents resorted to bloodless bureaucratic contortions, and walked into a public relations disaster.
To some, there is a question as to what “from the river to the sea” means, even though its meaning, like “gas the Jews,” has been clear for decades until now, when representatives like Rashid Tlaib try to redefine it for their own sake into something sweet and positive. But that wasn’t the question Stefanik asked. The question was about “genocide.”
To bolster her newfound support for free speech, Goldberg invokes the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
But as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a libertarian-leaning civil liberties group, said in a statement about the hearings, “Double standards are frustrating, but we should address them by demanding free speech be protected consistently — not by expanding the calls for censorship.” Unfortunately, that is not what’s happening.
FIRE is, of course, absolutely right about free speech. And yet, Goldberg fails to grasp what was obvious to Stephens (and me). that these very same schools were at the lead in censoring “hate” speech before October 7th and there is absolutely no basis to believe they won’t spin in a dime and do the same when the target of vitriol isn’t Jews.
Goldberg blames Stefanik for springing the trap with her badgering and nasty choice of question.
At one point, Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is the chairwoman of the committee holding the hearing, asked each of the presidents whether she believed that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Now, I think that calls to dismantle Israel are misguided at best and often despicable, but it was wildly inappropriate for educational leaders to be asked to affirm their Zionism before a government panel. It felt reminiscent of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee: “Are you now, or have you ever been, an anti-Zionist?”
“I have a real problem with questions where you think there’s only one right answer,” said Enos. “You’re not asking a true question. You’re asking for some kind of loyalty display. And I think those things are especially dangerous.”
The question wasn’t hard. The answer was self-evident. But Goldberg was kinda right, it was a trap, though not a trap laid by the shifty Harvard-educated lawyer, Stefanik. It was a trap they laid for themselves when they failed to demonstrate the maturity and fortitude of telling their “consumers” they are foolish children indulging their ridiculous progressive fantasies. The trap was that having provided support and comfort for the ideological inanities of their unduly passionate students, they could no longer answer an easy question like an intelligent adult without being caught between the river and the sea in a trap.
“In today’s world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated,” she said. Expect more safety and less freedom.
In yesterday’s world, you were doing the exact same thing, but you were totally cool with it and proudly embraced it. If you had conceded your rank hypocrisy and admitted the now-obvious failure of promoting hatred and censorship, just against targets that the woke deemed deserving, perhaps you would be given a chance to prove you’ve learned something. But you didn’t, you can’t and you haven’t. There is no remorse for the wrong you’ve done. Only that you got caught in a trap.