It’s always good to be reminded, every now and then, of how much the rest of the country hates Yale.
This point was driven home over spring break when the first thing my parents, family and friends all wanted to ask me about was whether I’d yet taken a seminar with the ex-Taliban official. Apparently, although we Yalies all lost interest a few days after the explosive New York Times Magazine story about Rahmatullah Hashemi came out, Bill O’Reilly won’t shut up about it.
The feeding frenzy has been remarkable. My friends have been interviewed by CNN and invited onto cable “news” talk shows to yell at each other. The blogosphere has been oversaturated — Google the name “Hashemi” and you get 345,000 hits. Incidentally, that’s 10 times the number of hits you get from Googling “Elihu Yale.” Opinion pieces have been published. Outrage has been spilled. People are shocked, shocked, to learn that a man associated with the fallen Afghanistan regime is currently taking classes on our campus.
To be clear, this is not going to be another opinion piece on Hashemi. I haven’t met the man, and I can’t judge whether it’s appropriate for him to be here. Instead, I want to say a word or two about the army of conservative pundits who know even less about Hashemi than I do, but who have nevertheless seized upon him eagerly as a powerful new axe with which to hack away at Yale’s reputation.
One of the reasons conservatives tend to win elections is that they are masters of symbolism. Never mind the polls that show Americans tend to favor Democrats on key policy issues ranging from health care to the environment to the economy to education. Republicans may lose on the substance, but when it comes to the images they conjure into voters’ imaginations on Election Day — an American flag burning, or two grooms walking down the aisle or a sinister picture of Osama bin Laden — they win every time. Good symbolism overrides reason with irrationality, drowning thoughtful discourse in a flash flood of patriotism, religious fervor or raw terror. Conservatives have no idea how to win the actual debate, but they know how to distract everyone from it.
In the unsuspecting person of Hashemi, conservatives have once again found a potent symbol to override thoughtful discussion. For the rest of America, Hashemi is now the epitome of Ivy League liberal political correctness taken to an absurd extreme, living proof of the dangers of affirmative action in university admissions. He is the embodiment of the lily-livered, draft-dodging, unpatriotic establishment ensconced in the modern-day American ivory tower — an establishment devoted to achieving a Utopian pluralistic multiculturalism at the expense of America’s security. He is a stark reminder of the superiority of the heartland’s common sense values over the East Coast’s stuffy intellectualism. He is all these things, even though the rest of the country has no idea who he actually is and doesn’t seem to care.
By and large, the conservative pundit class does not care about what is really happening on our campus or on Ivy League campuses in general. They are interested only in bashing us and, to bash us more effectively, they are willing to distort the truth in extraordinary ways.
If you don’t believe me, consider the case of Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund. Ever since the Hashemi story broke, Fund has been beating this particular drum at maximum volume. “Are there no limits to how arrogant and out-of-touch America’s Ivy League schools can get?” Fund sneered in a column on March 6, further suggesting that the Ivy League had “surrender[ed] all vestiges of common sense.”
I single out Fund because the Yale Political Union recently had a bizarre and highly illuminating confrontation with him. Fund was invited to the YPU to speak on the recently decided Solomon Amendment case; needless to say, the case had absolutely nothing to do with the Taliban or with Hashemi. Nevertheless, during spring break, Fund attempted to coerce the YPU into altering its debate topic so that he could speak about the ex-Taliban student.
YPU President Meredith Startz ’07 politely told Fund that the debate topic had already been set, and that, since the Law School professor who argued Yale’s Solomon Amendment case before the Supreme Court had already been invited as well, it would be impossible to change. Fund responded by denouncing Meredith Startz in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
“Ms. Startz’s own organization is discouraging discussion of the [Taliban] subject,” Fund fumed on Monday, and claimed that he had been invited “to debate both military recruitment and the Hashemi case … but when [the YPU Vice President] brought the proposal to the executive board, it was rejected.” As a member of that executive board, I know for a fact that this is a blatant lie, and so does John Fund.
What is the point of this story? Simply that the most vicious critics of Yale and the Ivy League tend never to let the facts get in the way of a good story. I don’t know whether Yale was right to allow Hashemi to attend class here, but I do know the University is right to ignore the indignant howling of Fund and his ilk. Hashemi is also a different kind of symbol — an emblem of the problem with modern political discourse in America, in which buzzwords trump careful analysis, and indignant pundits bloviate even when they should know better.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.