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Villain or Fall Guy? Yale and the Case of the Missing Cartoons

August 14th, 2009 - 7:34 am

There are a few unexplained mysteries in the case of Yale University Press and Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons that Shook the World. As all the world knows by now, when Yale publishes the book in November it will be in a bowdlerized version. Neither the infamous “Danish cartoons” nor classic representations of Mohammed, e.g., Gustave Doré’s illustration for Canto 28 (the “sowers of religious discord”) of Dante’s Inferno, will be included in the book.

The Yale Press and its director, John Donatich, have been widely castigated for this decision. Reporting on the incident yesterday, I suggested that he should exchange the famous Yale motto Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth”) for Timiditas and Deditio (“Cowardice and Surrender”). Even the American Association of University Professors, not an organization renowned for its courage, has categorically condemned the censorship. “We deplore this decision and its potential consequences,” wrote Cary Nelson, President of the AAUP in a blistering open letter titled “Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press.”

Well put. But why did the Yale University Press so ostentatiously abridge Professor Klausen’s academic freedom? It turns out that that is not so easy a question to answer.

I spoke by telephone with Professor Klausen in Denmark yesterday. A couple of days ago, The New York Times, in a typically craven piece, took the side of YUP, noting that the decision to censor (not their word) Professor Klausen’s book had been taken only after consulting “two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism.” But why would the YUP have done that? Professor Klausen told me that the book had already gone through a rigorous vetting. Readers’ reports — including two from Muslim scholars — were unanimously enthusiastic. The only [UPDATE: Lib-Dem] Muslim member of the House of Lords, Baroness Kishwer Falker, enthusiastically endorsed the book: “This tells the story that had to be told,” she said. “Deeply researched and sensitively written, it answers the questions of how and what really happened. A must read!” The book had been vetted by YUP’s legal counsel and received the old nihil obstat. The YUP’s publications committee unanimously and enthusiastically recommended the book for publication. So why call in another “two dozen authorities” on the veritable eve of publication?

And note this: according to Professor Klausen, none of that quire of “authorities” actually read the book. So how authoritative was their recommendation? Call Linda Douglass! Here’s something that really is “fishy.”

Professor Klausen, who teaches at Brandeis, began smelling it in July when John Donatich called her and suggested they have “a cup of coffee” in Boston. Oh, by the way, he informed her later, Linda Lorimer, Vice President and Secretary of the University, and Marcia Inhorn, a Professor of Anthropology and chairman of the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale, would be joining them.

Uh oh.

Their two-hour cup of coffee on July 23rd was not a pleasant occasion. Professor Klausen was told about the recommendations of those anonymous “authorities.” Unfortunately, her book about the Danish cartoons could only be published without the cartoons. Moreover, Professor Inhorn told her, that depiction of Mohammed in hell by Doré would have to go. How about the less graphic image of Mohammed by Dalí? she suggested.

Nope. No-go on that either. In fact, Yale was embarking a new regime of iconoclasm: no representations of that 7th-century religious figure were allowed. (I rang Professor Inhorn at Yale to ask her about the event. She said she’d call me back. I’m still waiting.)

The recommendations by those nebulous “authorities” were eventually codified in a 14-page memo. Professor Klausen has been read snippets of the memo but hasn’t seen the whole thing because she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement (a “gag order” she called it) not to reveal its contents or the names of the authorities. Why would Yale insist that she sign a confidentiality agreement?

More to the point, why would the Vice President and Secretary of Yale University, one of Yale’s top corporate officers, be party to that “cup of coffee”? I called Linda Lorimer’s office to find out. Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be unavailable. (Perhaps she is traveling in Dubai or Saudi Arabia: Professor Klausen said that she mentioned over that cup of coffee that she often traveled in that part of the world.) I was shunted over to Tom Conroy, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at Yale. He, too, was unavailable, but he later emailed me a press release and asked that I “consider it Yale’s response to inquiries.” Hey, I can take a hint. This document shows that Yale is not without a sense of humor, for it solemnly informs readers that Yale is an “institution deeply committed to free expression.” Funny, what?

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