Roger’s Rules

My absolutely, positively final word about Yale and the Danish cartoons

I know, I know: not only have I already written several columns about the case of Yale and the Danish Cartoons, I’ve even bid adieu with a footnote to the subject and, just a week or so ago, a piece I announced as my final word on this sordid case of cravenness, misrepresentation, and academic betrayal. By now, all the world knows that the President’s office at Yale intervened at the last moment to censor a scholarly book about the wave of violence that followed publication of some caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Thus we will have the absurd situation that The Cartoons that Shook the World, a rigorously vetted study of the controversy by the Danish-born Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen, will be published without the cartoons that are the subject of the book. And that’s not all. Since any representation of Mohammed is offensive to many Muslims, Yale also insisted that Professor Klausen omit the other images of Mohammed, e.g., by Gustave Doré, that she had intended to include in the book.

I at first described this as an act of “pre-emptive capitulation” on the part of Yale University Press and its spineless director, John Donatich. It certainly is that. But a little scratching revealed that greed was competing with cowardice. Yale, it transpired, was cultivating various sources of support in the Muslim world. Martin Kramer and Diana West (and here) dug a little deeper and showed how Yale had been vying for millions of dollars in grants from a foundation established by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire.

A former university president wrote me to say that, while he certainly thought Yale had disgraced itself, he doubted money was the issue: Notwithstanding its big losses in the stock market last year, Yale still had an endowment in the billions: it wouldn’t, he said, prostitute itself for a mere $20 million.

Maybe not. But as Martin Kramer noted, Yale has appointed Muna Abu Sulayman, executive director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation (which reportedly has earmarked $100 million for compliant Western institutions), a “Yale World Fellow” for 2009. I’d say that Richard Levin, Yale’s president, takes an aggressive approach to cultivating a prospective donor: he arranges a fellowship and has his quarry living close by in New Haven. Who knows, maybe John Donatich will also be able to interest Sulayman in forking over the several million dollars he needs to embark on his on-line Koran project at the Yale University Press?

In any event, I am willing to concede that cowardice and the desire to be politically correct weighed heavily with Yale and the Yale University Press. Like many right-thinking (which means left-leaning) institutions these days, Yale is afflicted with a bad case of Islamophobia-phobia — that is, a pusillanimous fear of being labeled “Islamophobic” by one’s politically correct peers. (“Islamophobia,” I am fond of pointing out, is a misnomer. A phobia is an ungrounded or irrational fear, but what could be more solidly grounded or rational than a fear of radical Islam?) Still, I suspect that a large element of financial calculation entered into Yale’s decision to step into the YUP’s publishing process at the last minute and bowdlerize a scholar’s work. The official Yale press release spoke ominously of a concern about possible violence should they publish the images of Mohammed. But I suspect that the operative question was: what can Jytte Klausen do for us in comparison with our rich friends in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Abu Dhabi?

This is not to say that Yale is not willing to exploit Professor Klausen for all she is worth. I had an email from her yesterday noting that Yale has accelerated the publication schedule for her book. It was due out in November, but they are rushing it into print even now in order to capitalize on the controversy that their egregious behavior has precipitated. Professor Klausen described this turn of events as “interesting.” Interesting, indeed. A friend who is knowledgeable about the situation at Yale was more graphic. When I wrote to tell him about this latest wrinkle, he replied in disgust that Yale was “capitalizing on the publicity in a truly opportunistic and unprincipled manner.”

“Opportunistic,” yes; “unprincipled,” you betcha; and let’s not forget “pathetic.” Just take a look at the damage control Yale has engaged in. The weblog of the Yale Alumni magazine, which now a wholly-owned poodle-like subsidiary of the Yale administration, recently published a piece arguing that the outcry about the censorship of Professor Klausen’s book was — wait for it — “conservative.” The idea, of course, is that if a criticism is “conservative,” it is therefore illegitimate. Now, I am only too happy to identify myself as a conservative. And perhaps Diana West and Martin Kramer also belong on that side of the political spectrum. But Yale’s effort to discredit criticism of its behavior as a “conservative outcry” just won’t wash. True, many of the early stories criticizing Yale were by conservatives. But we have since been joined by many liberal commentators. Cary Nelson, for example, head of the American Association of University Professors, thundered in an open letter that “We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.” An editorial in The Washington Post argued that “Yale University Press is allowing violent extremists to set the terms of free speech. . . . [I]t should be ashamed.” Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, described Yale’s capitulation as “the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism — particularly Muslim religious extremism — that is spreading across our culture.” Alan Dershowitz, writing in Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, criticized “Yale’s decision to capitulate to what are sure to be increasing demands for censorship out of fear of unlawful and immoral violence.” Meanwhile the National Coalition Against Censorship, is preparing an open letter arguing that Yale’s behavior “compromises the principle and practice of academic freedom, undermines the independence of the Press, damages the University’s credibility, and diminishes its reputation for scholarship.”

I hope now finally to have done with this discreditable affair. If I have gone on about it frequently and at length, it is because what is happening at Yale is symptomatic of a much larger problem — a much larger failure of nerve — in our culture at large. What is at stake is not just academic freedom but freedom writ large. John Donatich and Richard Levin are sorry collaborationists in a movement that is inimical to everything the institutions they lead represent. I suppose that, from one point of view, they should be pitied. But from the point of view of those who cherish political freedom and the free exchange of ideas, they should be replaced.