Roger’s Rules

Curiouser and curiouser: a footnote to Yale's Islamophobia-phobia

[See the update at the end of this post.]

In the September issue of The New Criterion, out on September 1 at www.newcriterion.com and at newsstands everywhere, the Editors devote the Notes & Comments section to the saga of The Danish Cartoons and Yale University. As readers of Roger’s Rules, you may feel that you know all there is to know about that disreputable episode. In fact, there are a few new wrinkles that anyone concerned with academic freedom and/or the American character of American universities will want to know about and I hope you will consult the piece in The New Criterion when it appears.

For the time being, though, I want to share just one item from that note. It concerns the role of Ambassador John Negroponte in the affair. I had heard through the proverbial grapevine that he was one of the “two dozen” mostly unnamed “experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies,” that Yale consulted in order to justify censoring Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons that Shook the World. He seemed like a natural choice: as a former Director of National Intelligence and former United States Deputy Secretary of State, he had occupied top spots in the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic apparatus. He had also been U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, the U.N., and Iraq. He was also in the neighborhood, having recently been appointed a fellow to at Yale’s MacMillan Center of International Studies. More to the point, Ambassador Negroponte was part of a State Department that seemed more concerned about “offending” Muslims than dealing with jihadists. Indeed, it counselled its employees to avoid even using terms like “jihad,” “terrorist,” and “Islamofascism” because it might upset the poor dears. He was, I surmised, a natural for Yale to consult since he could be counted on to deliver the verdict Yale desired.

I tried to confirm Ambassador Negroponte’s role, but no one at the Yale Press would do so. Nor would the Ambassador’s Washington office do so. Indeed, I would describe his aide’s response as dismissive, bordering on rude, as he spat out the words “No Comment.”

Fortunately, The Yale Daily News has come to the rescue, at least I think it has. Last night at 7:00 p.m., the newspaper posted the following story.

Negroponte

I include this here as a screen shot because, as of this writing, the piece is no longer available at the YDN’s website [it is back up here.]. When I called to inquire, I was told that this part of their website was experiencing technical difficulties, so perhaps it will reappear in the fullness of time. I know it is hard to read, so until The Yale Daily News overcomes its technical difficulties, here is a transcription of the relevant bits:

Q: What advice did you give Yale about publishing the cartoons?
A: I agreed with the decision by Yale and I certainly think that publishing the cartoons and the likenesses of Muhammad in the way they appeared in those cartoons would have been a gratuitous act.

Q: Do you think there would have been violence in reaction to the republication of the cartoons?
A: Certainly the experience has been that up to now the republication of some of these cartoons has caused an even more violent reaction than the initial publication.

Q: Would that violence have taken place on Yale’s campus or elsewhere?
A: I think it was a more generic threat. The violence in the case of the Danish cartoons mainly happened abroad in places like Kabul, Afghanistan. But it’s violence nonetheless.

Q: When would the concern about possible violence be outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech?
A: It’s a judgment call, of course. The question is: on balance, how much of the academic purpose of this book is stymied by the fact of not publishing the cartoons? I don’t think it’s
stymied at all since the images are accessible elsewhere, especially online.

Q: What else influenced your recommendation to the University?
A: What was kind of decisive for me in a way as I looked through the background and some of the material was that the American newspapers took the decision not to publish the images back in 2005. I think one did, but the Washington Post and New York Times and Boston Globe did not.

Readers might be interested in Jytte Klausen’s response to Ambassador Negroponte’s remarks. “Negroponte cancelled my illustrations because of ‘a generic threat’,” she emailed me, “and because he considered the illustrations ‘a gratuitous act.’ I wonder how he knew that? He never read the manuscript?”

I’ve always admired Sydney Smith’s quip that he never read a book before reviewing it because he found that doing so “prejudiced one.” John Negroponte and the other “experts” show that Smith’s witticism is not always a funny remark.

* * * UPDATE: a friend who is knowledgeable about this episode makes an insightful observation about Ambassador Negroponte’s intervention: “Negroponte says that he agreed with the University’s decision.  That implies that the University had made up its mind in advance of even getting in touch with him.  He agreed.  He didn’t counsel or persuade.  I view this as crucial in establishing that the University did not operate in good faith—that it was NOT interested in the interests of academic freedom, historical truth or fairness.  It was interested from the outset entirely in squelching the cartoons because they would damage what the University perceived as its own, corporate (economic) self-interest.  And this comes back to your point about the character of American universities today.  As a corporation it acted as any corporation would act—General Motors or Bank of America.  To my mind, it has sullied not only its own credibility as a scholarly institution, but it has debased the meaning of the university itself.”

My only quibble is that I suspect that most corporations (thought perhaps not Government Motors) would act a whole lot better.