Monday’s op-ed page would have made John Stuart Mill weep. Littered with a letter, column and editorial censuring the Afro-American Cultural Center for inviting Amiri Baraka, the page was living proof that 150 years after Mill wrote “On Liberty,” unpopular opinions continue to be subdued.
For Mill, free speech wasn’t simply about tolerating fringe beliefs. Rather, he believed that anyone who truly values free speech — who genuinely believes in the marketplace of ideas, where good ideas jostle fearlessly with bad ones — should “freely and openly canvas” marginalized opinions:
“If there are persons who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, dissentients have something worth hearing … and truth would lose something by their silence.”
Tell that to the Yale Daily News managing board. On Monday, it wrote a stinging editorial arguing that Baraka’s invitation “should have never been extended” and that Monday’s talk “will effectively alienate most of the campus from the small group of students and faculty who welcome Baraka.”
First of all, student groups who invite controversial speakers ought to be congratulated, not condemned. Contrarian thinkers and conspiracy theorists expose us to vantage points we rarely encounter in fellow Yalies. Their arguments are often more sophisticated than we’d expect and in debating them, we gain a deeper understanding of our own opinions. At times, listening to Charles Murray rant about eugenics can be just as enlightening as listening to Harold Koh ramble about human rights.
Yet the Baraka controversy isn’t really about free speech. It’s about how special interests manipulate the public discourse to advance their agendas. And it’s about how journalists can sometimes be unwilling to cut through their propaganda.
See here’s the thing: Baraka has always been provocative, but his status as a virulent hatemonger really began last October. That’s when he criticized Israel. For the 40 years prior to that, he’d established himself as one of America’s premier poets, albeit one of its most controversial. He was a Guggenheim Fellow. He won a PEN/Faulkner award, an Obie (the off-Broadway equivalent of the Tony), the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He taught at America’s most prestigious universities, including Yale. When his peers named him New Jersey’s poet laureate — a post previously held by Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams — his nomination raised eyebrows, but little more.
Then came the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist group who ought to stick “Israeli” in front of its name (when was the last time it condemned defamation of Muslims and Arab-Americans?). Spotting an anti-Israel stanza in Baraka’s “Somebody blew up America,” the ADL launched a publicity campaign to punish Baraka for his critical views on Israel.
“Somebody blew up America,” the poem that triggered the recent uproar, has precious little to do with Israel. Read the poem yourself. The stanza about Israel is one of 60 and comes near the end. The major theme of the poem is an oft-repeated one: that the American government, and those in positions of power, have been responsible for their own share of hate, violence and terrorism. The poem is not anti-Semitic; rather, it’s full of lines sympathizing with Jewish suffering. He pits those “who killed the most Jews” and “put the Jews in ovens,” those who “killed Rosa Luxembourg” and “who murdered the Rosenbergs” in the same class as the Ku Klux Klan. His views are not critical of Judaism, but of Israel. He said as much on Monday.
I don’t mean to excuse Baraka for his sometimes over-the-top poetry. But as African American studies professor Elizabeth Alexander said, “He’s a social agitator — that’s his role in his art.” His writings certainly have featured smatterings of homophobic, racist and other offensive material, but so have the writings and speeches of countless other writers, activists and politicians who’ve visited Yale.
But alas, there’s a difference with Baraka. His offensive writings include a far-fetched conspiracy theory about how Israel knew about the Sept. 11 hijackings beforehand. Why should this conspiracy theory usher in the most vitriolic attacks on Baraka’s reputation in his 40-year career? Because Israeli sympathizers tend to occupy prominent positions in the American media.
Monday’s editorial, and the Yale Daily News in general, is a case in point. Obviously, it’s one thing to be Jewish, and wholly another to support the Israeli occupation. That said, Jews tend to sympathize with Israel more so than non-Jews. And in my three years at the Yale Daily News, Jewish students have comprised a majority of management positions (namely, editor in chief and managing editor). This year, nearly half the editors are Jewish.
Am I pointing to a secret Jewish conspiracy aimed at promoting Israel at college dailies? Of course not.
But does the prevalence of Jews in American media, business and politics help explain America’s steadfast support for Israel, whose 35-year occupation of Palestinian lands is an affront to human decency? Of course.
Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.