Once again, Yale makes headlines, and, once again, conservative pundits are reveling in the chance to tar and feather this liberal renegade of an institution.
That conservatives think Old Campus is bastion of secular liberalism has been old news since the era of William F. Buckley ’50. But the subtext of the most recent uproar is more disturbing than usual and, ultimately, makes Yale’s critics look far worse than the students they criticize.
The incident started Tuesday at 3 a.m. when three student, walking home on Chapel Street lit an American flag on fire. The students were arrested because the flag they burned was attached to a private house, but the subsequent public outcry is enough to obscure the fact that flag-burning isn’t, in itself, illegal. And amidst all the cries for the three students to be deported — all of whom were born abroad, though one is a U.S. citizen — one might almost also forget that the First Amendment applies to everyone who lives within America’s borders, not just those who were born within them.
The lawyer for the three students says Hyder Akbar ’07, the U.S. citizen, admits to burning the flag, with no anti-American political motive, and without the participation of the two freshmen with whom he had been out walking. The case would seem thus fairly unremarkable — the fact that college kids sometimes act irrationally at 3 a.m. is news by no one’s standards but Rumpus’ — were it not for the viciously racist and xenophobic undertones pushing along the discussion.
The volume of the response resembles other recent Yale PR troubles (shower sex, fraudulent video resumes), but the flat-out xenophobia surpasses even the fight over the admissions of special student Rahmatullah Hashemi, referred to as “Yale’s Taliban” in the right-wing press. At least Hashemi had actually once been anti-American — he was part of the Taliban government. Akbar, on the other hand, worked to help U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the two freshmen just have the misfortune of having names that are hard to spell.
It’s one thing to mock Yalies for being so elitist yet also, occasionally, so idiotic. With admit rates for the Ivy League at a record low, that complaint is understandable. But their critics are going beyond that and denouncing them as potentially terrorist foreigners who ought to be sent home for their ungrateful or, worse, potentially dangerous attitude. Regardless of intention, burning a flag will be seen as a political statement, but critics of the three students belie their xenophobic nature when they call for the students to be punished by having their visas revoked on grounds of their being a threat to national security or, almost worse, an affront to American honor.
No — being born abroad is not itself evidence of a political viewpoint, and reading this event as proof that all foreigners innately hate America is the first step in an argument that ends up serving as an excuse to pre-emptively hate all foreigners. And that is xenophobia, pure and simple.