Very Good Questions

I’m not a huge fan of Maureen Dowd, the columnist for the New York Times. I probably agree with her more than I disagree, but I’ve been put off at times by what comes across as cattiness, or perhaps just a “too cute” writing style.

That said, she ended last Sunday’s column with a very important set of questions.

The column was about the hugely controversial testimony of three college presidents over anti-semitism on their (very elite) campuses. My own reaction parallels that of another Times columnist, David French. French is a former litigator who spent a considerable portion of his legal career battling censorship on college campuses. He wrote that what struck him about the presidents’ answers wasn’t legal insufficiency “but rather their stunning hypocrisy.”

As French accurately notes, private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, although academic freedom principles–which they do follow– are modeled after the Free Speech provisions of that Amendment. If those schools hewed more closely to First Amendment analysis, the “context matters” responses would have been largely correct.

So if the university presidents were largely (though clumsily) correct about the legal balance, why the outrage? To quote the presidents back to themselves, context matters. For decades now, we’ve watched as campus administrators from coast to coast have constructed a comprehensive web of policies and practices intended to suppress so-called hate speech and to support students who find themselves distressed by speech they find offensive.

The result has been a network of speech codes, bias response teams, safe spaces and glossaries of microaggressions that are all designed to protect students from alleged emotional harm. But not all students.

French is absolutely correct that “the rule cannot be that Jews must endure free speech at its most painful while favored campus constituencies enjoy the warmth of college administrators and the protection of campus speech codes.”

Dowd similarly alluded to the hypocrisy of the testimony. She quoted Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, who criticized “the inability of these individuals to articulate a simple, straightforward answer to what should have been the easiest question in the world… These presidents are not committed to free speech. They’re committed to favored speech. They selectively enforce the codes of conduct when it works for them or their friends in the faculty lounge.”

When it comes to the current war in the Middle East, Dowd points out what every sentient person knows about the conflict: there are no good guys.

Netanyahu isn’t just personally despicable, he and his supporters have done enormous damage to Israel both domestically and internationally, and there is simply no justification for the way Israel has treated the Palestinians over the past twenty plus years. But as Dowd says, that’s no excuse for what Hamas did on October 7th. Hamas is a terrorist organization intent upon wiping Israel and all Jews off the face of the globe. But again, that undeniable fact does not justify the indiscriminate killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.

As Dowd writes, these things should be self-evident. But then, so much of our current political turmoil is the result of refusal to accept facts that should be self-evident.

Dowd writes:

I think this is still America. But I don’t understand why I have to keep making the case on matters that should be self-evident.

Why should I have to make the case that a man who tried to overthrow the government should not be president again?

Why should I have to make the case that we can’t abandon Ukraine to the evil Vladimir Putin?

Why should I have to make the case that a young woman — whose life and future ability to bear children are at risk — should not be getting persecuted about an abortion by a shady Texas attorney general?

Why should I have to make the case that antisemitism is abhorrent?

To which I will add another: why should we have to make the case that criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, but blaming all Jews for decisions made by the Israeli government (or for whatever is going wrong in someone’s life) is?

I see an eerie parallel between the current eruption of anti-Jewish hatred sparked by the events in the Middle East, and the explosion of anti-Black bigotry that followed the election of Barack Obama. Obviously, ancient tribal hatreds had been there all along–simmering, barely suppressed bigotries just waiting for an excuse to emerge.

The most poignant “why” question of all has to be: why are we humans so tribal? Why do we insist on seeing people who differ from us in some way as a monolithic “them” rather than the discrete individuals they are?

In the immortal words of Rodney King, why can’t we all just get along?


Faith versus Fact

The New York Times put it succinctly:

“The debate over what to do to reduce gun violence in America hit an absurd low point on Wednesday when a Senate witness tried to portray a proposed new ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines as some sort of sexist plot that would disproportionately hurt vulnerable women and their children. …

But there is a more fundamental problem with the idea that guns actually protect the hearth and home. Guns rarely get used that way. In the 1990s, a team headed by Arthur Kellermann of Emory University looked at all injuries involving guns kept in the home in Memphis, Seattle and Galveston, Tex. They found that these weapons were fired far more often in accidents, criminal assaults, homicides or suicide attempts than in self-defense. For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.”

My husband and I happened to see the testimony the Times was referencing: in it, the young woman told a Senate committee considering the assault weapon ban a poignant story of a woman who had shot intruders and protected her children. One of the Senators on the committee happened to be familiar with the incident she cited, and pointed out that the weapon the woman had used was a shotgun that would still be available to her if the ban passed. The facts didn’t phase the woman offering the testimony, who continued to insist that any effort to limit gun availability would endanger innocent women and children.

Her entire performance reminded me of a religious believer reciting a ritual–impervious to data or evidence contradicting her deeply-held belief.

The analogy that springs to mind is the congregation of simple folks without much in the way of worldly goods who nevertheless continue to donate hard-earned money to pastors living the high life thanks to their credulity. In this case, the pastors are the gun manufacturers and the believers are the fanatic fringe of the NRA.

I know reasonable people who own guns. I know rural folks who hunt. I even know single women who have pistols they have purchased for self-protection. None of them use–or defend–assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and they aren’t the problem. The problem is the True Believers–the people who are emotionally invested in a theology of guns.

People of faith.