A Moral Exemplar?

To my surprise, the National Review has a piece arguing that Brandeis was right to disinvite Ayaan Hirsi Ali from their commencement ceremonies. In fact, a whole panel was assembled to defend Brandeis on this front. Here are some of the highlights, with each block of text from a different author:

The invitation to deliver a commencement address, especially when coupled with the award of an honorary degree, is not a neutral act. It’s an act by which an institution of higher learning says, “This is a life worth emulating according to our understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”


When a university invites anyone to its campus to present a commencement address, it honors the person chosen. Likewise, the invitation itself indicates what the inviting institution thinks of itself, of what it, as an institution, considers to be worthy of honor. Some people would not be invited; others would not accept. Those invited do not accept every invitation. When they do accept, they indicate that it is worth their while to give the said address and receive the said honor. Clearly, some things are incompatible with honor, others are incompatible with truth, the purpose of a university.


The word “perfidy” derives from the Latin “perfidus,” that is, “faithless” or “detrimental to faith”; it is also synonymous with “treachery,” or “violation of allegiance or trust.” [Brandeis’] decision to honor [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] as its commencement speaker in May is perfidious and treacherous in the extreme.


Imagine [Brandeis] university in the 1960s awarding a segregationist politician an honorary doctorate. This would have been an outrage — giving [institutional] cover to someone who denied the equal rights and fundamental equal dignity of a whole class of human beings.


[Brandeis’] decision to publicly honor [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] at this time is not simply inconsistent with the university’s mission — although it certainly is that. It is not simply wrong — although it is that, too. It is a scandal and an outrage, which is why we launched [a petition]. Already more than 10,000 rightfully angry [people] agree.


I can see some good reasons for [Brandeis] to invite [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] to give a speech. Free inquiry, open discussion, vigorous debates — that’s what universities do. And [Jewish] universities do it very well, because unlike most universities, they don’t censure conservatives.

But a commencement address? It’s not an academic event of intellectual exchange and debate. It’s entirely and richly symbolic.

Oh wait, I am sorry. I became woefully mixed up. This was about when conservatives were mad that Obama was giving the commencement address at Notre Dame.

Once again, nobody is motivated by these kinds of arguments. They adopt them whenever they cohere with their short-term substantive preferences. Those who don’t like Obama’s views on abortion have soaring rhetorical arguments for why it is really out of place to have him speak at a commencement address, despite his other obvious accomplishments. Conservatives, either because they share the same substantive views or tribal affiliation, find those arguments super-persuasive, at the time.

When the substance of the dispute and the tribal commitments flip on their head, then everyone switches sides, as we now see with Ali.

What’s surprising is that anyone even bothers with pretending otherwise. I guess you got to fill out your copy one way or another.