Sunday, January 24, 2016
Freedom of Expression Debated at UC Irvine
"One person's hate speech is another person's education."
On Friday and Saturday (January 22-23, I attended two days of a three-day event hosted by the University of California at Irvine and the University of Southern California (Day 3-Sunday- was scheduled at USC. That I did not attend.) The topic of discussion was Freedom of Speech in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said? The conference consisted on a series of panels made up of cartoonists, writers and professors debating freedom of expression with a supposed emphasis on the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. On Saturday, fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was interviewed via a telecon hookup from Moscow and via a moderator in New York (Barton Gellman).
Generally, the audiences numbered from 100-200 persons mostly academic types I would guess and a few students.
On Friday evening, there was a panel of cartoonists. They were:
Lalo Alarez, Matt Bors, Steve Brodner, Ann Telnaes and a Malaysian political cartoonist named Zunar.
Alcaraz runs a cartoon strip known as, "La Cucaracha". He stated at the outset that he was in agreement with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who had criticized Hebdo after the deadly attack because they were "punching down on a disenfranchised minority group" (Muslims) rather than "punching up" toward authority. He raised the name of Pam Geller, who in his words, had produced cartoons "because she could" and referred to cartoonists who drew Mohammed cartoons not as cartoonists, but as "A-holes". (Alcaraz used a few four-letter words in his remarks.) Alcaraz, as did the others, showed several of his cartoons for the audience on power point and poster boards including one mocking the McKinney, Texas police after last year's swimming pool incident involving black youths.
Bors, who is Portland, Oregon-based ("The Nib") showed some of his work including anti-gun and one entitled, "No Muslims allowed" mocking Islamophobia.
Brodner, who is a free-lancer, showed some of his work including Ronald Reagan with a long nose (a'la Pinocchio), an anti-(Nicaraguan) Contra piece, one of Rush Limbaugh in a negative light ("Got Hate?"), Donald Trump with a swastika on his scalp, and Henry Kissinger fornicating the world. Another, a Hebdo-inspired cartoon, showed a tree with the heads of figures like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Trump, and a couple of other conservative figures hanging from the branches with blood dripping to the ground where heads representing terrorists were being nurtured by the blood. (At least that was how I understood the explanation.)
You get the picture. There was not a lot of sympathy being shown the victims of Charlie Hebdo here.
The closest one came to showing any concern for those victims was Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post, who most recently came under fire for her caricature of Ted Cruz with two monkeys on a leash representing his children. She told of the hate mail she received much of which was vile. She was very concerned that political campaigns would have an increasingly chilling effect on cartoonists in trying to "shut us down." She also showed some of her previous work, one showing Netanyahu punching a child in response to Palestinian attacks, another critical of Saudi Arabia and its treatment of women and US acquiescence. She did, however, part with Trudeau in saying that her "free speech fanaticism doesn't kill people."
Zunar is under prosecution in Malaysia for his criticism through art of the Malaysian government including the current president and first lady. His work has been banned on the charge that it might inspire revolt. Zunar stated that as a Muslim, he disagreed with the Hebdo cartoons, but defended their right to publish them. He stated that the Prophet Mohammad would never have ordered their killing and that he had freed and forgiven this or that enemy captured in war. He pointed to a young Muslim lady in the audience, probably a student, and asked if Mohammad would have ordered anyone killed. She replied, "No".
Zunar, meet Ka'b bin al-Ashraf.
But I digress.
During the q and a, Brendan O'Neill (a future panelist) and editor of Spiked.com, stated that he disagreed that Hebdo cartoonists were "punching down", rather O'Neill stated that they were "punching up" against censorship.
In answer to a question, all of the panelists stated that they would not produce a Mohammad cartoon.
The final speaker of the evening was Rebecca McKinnon, formerly CNN bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. She is now working with the New America Foundation and Global Voices Online. Her talk concerned freedom of expression in the Internet age. She talked about how the Egyptian protests running up to the Arab Spring used the Internet and discussed the amount of control of the Internet in various counties (blocking content from Facebook etc.)
On Saturday, the first speaker was a California-based comedienne, Sandra Tsing Loh. I came in late and caught only the end of her q and a. The main event was Edward Snowden, who was to be interviewed via a telecon hookup from Moscow and via his interviewer, Barton Gellman, in New York.The interview lasted an hour and a half and the audience was asked not to film. (I had not brought a camera anyway.)
Rather than repeat all of Snowden's words, which were lengthy (I anticipate the video will be posted in the coming days by The Nation), let me say that he is an incredibly articulate young man especially for one who has only a high school education. Yet, in my view, he used the politician's tact of answering the questions he wanted asked rather than those which were actually asked. While the interviewer tried to ask questions about freedom of expression, Snowden waxed eloquent on the duty of the citizen to act and concentrated more on why it was wrong for the government to collect mega-data. In other words, he was more focused on protecting people's privacy. It was as if he had his own prepared talking points out of camera range. He acknowledged there were areas that required secrecy, but said that there was what he called, "uber-classification.
As for questions from the audience back at UC Irvine, we were told we could write them down and submit them (for screening). Of course, I don't care for that type of q and a just for that reason. However, the nice young man with the index cards was standing right next to me, and I figured, "What the Hell?" So I wrote my question.
"If you are a true whistle blower, why could you have not made your concerns known to your agency? If they had ignored it, you could have found a congressperson to report it to. And if you truly believe in your cause, why not return home and make your case in court?"
The card went to a side table where two ladies were assorting them into several stacks. There were probably two or three dozen of them. I figured my question would never be chosen.
I was right.
In all, nine questions from the audience were given to Snowden. While they were valid questions, none were critical. One asked under what conditions he would return to the US. He answered that he had volunteered to return and go to prison (He didn't say for how long he would be willing to serve.) and that he had received a letter from the Justice Department promising not to torture him (laughter). Beyond that, he went on another long discourse but did not answer the question.
Snowden mentioned the case of General David Petraeus who had provided classified (Special Access Programs) information to his biographer and mistress. He stressed the fact that Petraeus pleaded to a violation of law but never spent a day in jail, whereas any normal person would have gone to jail for a very long time. (Are you reading this, Hillary Clinton?)
During his talk, the audience of 200-300 applauded often and at the end gave him a standing ovation. There was much love for Edward Snowden-much more than for the victims of Charlie Hebdo.
The first afternoon speaker (in person) was University of Florida English Professor Richard Burt, an odd sort, whose talk was entitled, "What the Dead Said". Burt's first two sentences were, "I am dead. I am dead." He then went on a long and incomprehensible presentation about certain people who had written things, like poems, and whose work was edited after they died. Included in this monologue were such gems as, "You have to be alive to speak". What all this had to do with freedom of expression, I have no idea. Burt told us about some English poet named John Keats who had died at the age of 26. Keats had written some poem about reading King Lear. He showed us a picture of Keats' tombstone.
Freedom of expression???
If Burt wasn't dead, he was surely dying up there at the podium. All the while, he was fumbling with a malfunctioning power point laptop. Finally, the moderator mercifully called time just as Burt was about to delve into some guy named Thomas Bernhardt. (I hope I'm spelling that correctly.)
This was the worst presentation I have ever witnessed. I can't believe they brought this character all the way out from Florida to present such irrelevant drivel.
The afternoon sessions consisted of three panels. The first was moderated by the UCI Law School dean and noted liberal, Erwin Chemerinsky. It was entitled, "The Law, the Media and the Changing Parameters of Free Expression". The panelists were: David Kaye, a professor of law at UCI and UN rapporteur on free speech, Paul Smith, an attorney who has extensive experience dealing with the Supreme Court, Nadine Strossen, who has worked with the ACLU, and Nick Goldberg, editorial page editor of the LA Times. Each panelist spoke for about ten minutes. Strossen argued strongly for protecting free speech even hate speech, which is Constitutionally protected. She said that the government must remain neutral when it comes to speech. She expressed concern about the status of free speech and added that many millennials and minority groups do not fully support the idea of free speech,
Smith stated that the First Amendment is fully supported by the Supreme Court. He echoed Snowden's statements about the government and corporations collecting and saving information on people.
Kaye observed that we have an obsession with the First Amendment. He had two concerns: First, the current effort at Countering Violent Extremism and second, access to information.
Goldberg said that he was not concerned about threats to freedom of speech coming from the government. He was concerned about the threats coming from his (LA Times) readership. He referred to the reader reactions through letters to the editor and online comments which strongly took exception to the Times' writing. He quoted the use of the N-word and specifically the backlash after the Times published a piece by a Hamas official.
Comment: The use of the N-word aside, it seems to me that reader comments to what the Times prints is an exercise in itself of freedom of speech. Are the readers supposed to just accept everything the Times (or any other paper) prints and not talk back?
Rather than let the audience ask questions, Chemerinsky posed his own questions to the panelists. The audience was, thus, excluded. In answering one of Chemerinsky's questions, Strossen mentioned that the Council on American Islamic Relations is losing members due to some fear of Muslims in being associated with them.
I should say. CAIR is an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a supporter of Hamas, and an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation trial in Dallas involving Islamic charities funneling funds to Middle East terrorist organizations.
Strossen also came out with this curious claim: When the automobile was invented, the FBI objected to the invention because it could be used by criminals to evade the police. Really? Seems to me that the invention of the automobile pre-dated the establishment of the FBI. But I could be wrong.
Goldberg in defending his policy on what to publish or not publish, asked, "Do you publish racist material, or a column by Usama bin Laden, or things that deny Climate Change, where the debate is already settled...?"
So don't ask the LA Times to publish a piece that denies Climate Change because it is already settled, right?
But things were just getting warmed up.
The next panel was entitled, Freedom of Expression in Repressive Conditions. The panelists were Olufunmilayo Arewa from the UCI Law School, who talked about digital disruption in post-colonial Africa, Nina Khrushcheva (a granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev), who talked about the situation in Russia under Putin, Luisa Lim, who talked about China's (very successful) efforts to remove the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and UCLA professor Saree Makdisi who talked about the repression of pro-Palestinian students at UCLA (that's right).
Khruscheva took the position that while Vladimir Putin is certainly repressive and has been responsible for the ordered killings of some of his opponents, the situation in Russia is much exaggerated in America. She told a humorous story about standing in Red Square holding a poster that read, "Putin is a dick" and being shooed away by a confused cop who had no idea what a dick was.
Then there was Makdisi. I mean, what is repression in Africa, Russia and China compared to UCLA, right? Makdisi, a professor of English literature, is a regular on the anti-Israel collegiate tour and a frequent op-ed writer for the LA Times, thanks, I presume to Mr Goldberg.. This was the second time I have heard him speak at UCI. At any rate, Makdisi spun his tale of woe by stating that one can take a lot of heat criticizing Israeli policies. He talked about the nasty hate mail he gets and the negative reactions from LA Times readers. He said that university administrators are not being protective of faculty and students (who criticize Israel) and mentioned the case of the so-called Irvine 11, the Muslim Student Union members who disrupted the speech of Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren at UCI in 2010, an event I witnessed. He characterized it as "interrupting" the speech something college students always do."
On the contrary. It was an organized and choreographed attempt to shut the speech down.
During the q and a, I was called upon and directed my comments to Makdisi.
I stated that as a part-time teacher at UCI Extension, I had been following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it has played out on our campus and other campuses since 2007. It was evident to me that the pro-Palestinian voices were totally dominating the discourse on campus-to the extent that Jewish students were being bullied and intimidated, to the extent that swastikas were appearing on campus buildings, and to the extent that an Israeli ambassador had his speech at UCI disrupted. Thus, I disagreed with Makdisi's assertions that pro-Palestinian students were the objects of repression.
In response, Makdisi stated the pro-Palestinian supporters were coming forth with facts and statistics, and that the pro-Israel students contended that this made them feel uncomfortable. He referred to the on-going issue of the university of California trying to formulate a statement of principles on intolerance and that the pro-Israel forces wanted the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism included in that statement. Makdisi mischaracterized the State Depratemts's definition as saying that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. (more on that point later). He also stated that "we are winning the argument" and that to label those arguments as anti-Semitic was an attempt to suppress arguments.
And for that, the audience of academics applauded.
The final panel was entitled, The New Correct: Freedom of Expression on Campus. The panelists were: Caitlin Flanagan a professor from Colorado College, Barry Glassner, President of Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, David Palumbo-Liu, professor of comparative literature at Stanford, and Brendan O'Neill (previously mentioned), Editor of Spiked.com.
O'Neill led off, and by the time he had finished, every flower in the room full of liberal academics had died. He was a refreshing voice of sanity as he quickly condemned ideas like "safe spaces", which he described as ugly, authoritarian places on British university campuses.. He gave plenty of examples of the insanity reigning in British academia including the incident a few days ago at King's College, where an Israeli speaker was loudly and violently disrupted by pro-Palestinian students who broke windows and rampaged through the building claiming that the event violated their "safe space". He spoke of how a speech by a Muslim apostate named Maryam Nemazie was disrupted by Muslim students at Goldsmith's University, who claimed that they were made to feel uncomfortable and that their safe space was violated. He talked about how his own participation at an abortion debate at Oxford was cancelled due to protests by feminists. Later, during the q and a, O'Neill asked whether the others really thought that minorities were less able to deal with free speech and engage in real debate, and whether that in itself was racist thinking.
O'Neill went on to place the greater blame on the adults who were teaching all this nonsense to students, who, in turn, were "little tyrants", whose idea was that "if you make us feel unsafe, we will destroy you."
O'Neill was followed by Glassner, who quickly took issue with his remarks saying that he had mocked students who alert their professors to "trigger warnings" and had mocked those (like him) who had to deal with them. He talked about the activism of his own students who "thankfully" had made his life miserable. He mentioned that he had to wait two months to move into his own office space because his students had taken it over as their own "safe space". (Boy, Mr Glassner, are you some weak president!) He then recounted the story of a 19-year-old black female student who had found racial slurs written on posters in her dorm. He said that "trigger warnings" were the result of serious research involving the victims of rape or other abuse and that they should be able to avoid certain materials in school that might trigger those memories.
Flanagan told of a white male student at Colorado College who had made a joke on social media to the effect that, "Black girls matter. They're just not hot". The student was called in by the administration, admitted to the statement, and apologized. He was suspended for two years. She added that FIRE, (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) reminded the school that although they were a private institution, their own handbook had affirmed their commitment to protecting freedom of speech. Flanagan asked, "Can we teach students that if somebody says something we don't like, we just get rid of them?" Later, during the q and a, she expressed her belief that there was a lot of anti-black racism among college students today.
Palumbo-Liu said that he was against making speech illegal, but expressed certain reservations. He mentioned the University of Oklahoma students who were expelled for singing racist songs on a bus. He said that he had discussed this incident with his students and noted one saying that "finally, a white college administrator had done the right thing". He noted that we would one day be a majority-minority society and also noted the rise in suicides among college students. He then went on to say that there were external forces attacking free speech on campus. This led him into the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He repeated Makdisi's mis-characterization of the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism as including criticism of Israel. He referred to the issue of UC's statement of principles on intolerance and told of how one UC regent, Richard Bloom (who is married to US Senator Dianne Feinstein) said at a recent regent's working group at UCI that his wife would be asking him about the progress of the statement. Note: I was present at that event. Bloom's comment was inappropriate, to be sure, but Palumbo-Liu neglected to mention comments by several other regents, such as John Perez, Norman Pettiz and others that expressed a need to specifically address anti-Semitism.
Palumbo-Liu, in referring to "external forces" neglected to mention external forces that are backing the pro-Palestinian students, such as CAIR, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Friends Service Committee, and others. At one point, Palumbo-Liu said that Jewish students should be challenged. I would have liked to ask him if he would extend that statement to other ethnic and religious groups since it seemed to be the dominant thinking that minorities should not be challenged given all the emphasis on safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask but alas, I was not called upon. O'Neill gallantly took all the heat and defended his views quite well. After the event concluded, I went up and thanked him for lending a voice of sanity and taking all the brickbats.
While I was doing that, a teaching colleague and friend of mine who was born in Israel and served with the IDF in combat, went up to challenge Palumbo-Liu on his statement that the State Department definition of anti-Semitism included criticism of Israel. He told Palumbo-Liu in no uncertain terms that his statement was demonstrably false. Palumbo-Liu was clearly taken aback and asked what was it he said that was false. I joined my friend, and at one point, I interjected that the definition listed specific references to Israel that could be considered anti-Semitic: Applying a double standard to Israel on human rights, and equating Israel with "Nazis". Finally, as my friend continued to give the what-for to Palumbo-Liu, the Stanford professor simply turned and retreated-no doubt in search of a safe space.
Here is the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.
So ended another exciting event consisting of numerous liberals with one token dissenter (O'Neill). I chose to skip the Sunday event. Why drive to LA when I can be on my safe space couch watching football? I have taken enough punishment.
Of course, left unanswered was the question: Post Charlie Hebdo-what cannot be said? Maybe it will be answered Sunday at USC. In my view, there is precious little that cannot be said in the United States of America. If you are talking about racist slurs that a young Lewis and Clark student had to endure or the racist chants of the University of Oklahoma students, those are examples that no decent person would condone. On the other hand, the insane incidents described in Britain (which are rampant in the US as well) by O'Neill deserved to be mocked notwithstanding the protestations of the pusillanimous president of Lewis and Clark.