Yale's Taliban: Defending the indefensible, part II

Posted: Apr 03, 2006 12:06 AM

Speaking at a Yale College Master’s Tea last week, Columbia Professor Todd Gitlin lamented the condition of the American Left: “There is currently a degree of intellectual paralysis, public fog, and collective and enthusiastic ignorance that defies comprehension,” he moaned. 

Professor Gitlin may as well have been speaking of Yale itself these days.  Upon learning that Yale admitted former Taliban “rising star” Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi as a non-degree special student, America became “pig-wrestling mad”—to quote the usually less colorful Economist—and retaliated with a sustained barrage of invective, ridicule, and outrage that has lasted well over a month.  Yale’s response was to issue a brief non-response, and then to stick its head in the sand.  A promised debate on the subject at the Yale Political Union was ungracefully scuttled.  The Yale Daily News, whose editors at first demanded answers from the Yale administration, is distancing itself from the controversy and, according to a student source, does not wish to cover the story further.  Even the tour guides have been instructed not to discuss the issue. 

Although Yale won’t defend itself, others are trying to do so.  On Thursday, I examined three of the arguments Yale’s defenders are offering.  There are more attempts to defend the indefensible, including a bizarre rationalization by the members of the Foundation that foots Mr. Rahamtullah’s bill.

The Academic Freedom Defense—The full title of William F. Buckley’s first book was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.”  His subtitle referred to the invocation by Yale’s faculty of “academic freedom” as an excuse for subversive teaching.  Even liberal notions of academic freedom were not without limits—Buckley pointed out that a faculty member who tried to justify Aryan supremacy would be fired.  (As shown by the collaboration of some faculty in keeping deconstructionist professor Paul de Man’s Nazi past a secret, Mr. Buckley may have overestimated Yale’s opposition to fascism.)

Academic freedom has emerged again in the debate over the Yale Taliban.  When the Yale Herald polled the student body about their thoughts on Mr. Rahmatullah,  about fifty percent of those who chose to respond ( a third of the student body) declared their support of his presence.  Their chief reason for doing so was “academic freedom”. 

This contemporary sense of academic freedom appears to embrace a right to a Yale education, no matter how sordid one’s past.  Yale is trying to be both meritocratic and relativist at the same time, and that is a very self-destructive notion for an elite college to embrace.  The abnegation of good and evil in assessing applicants calls into question the purpose of selective admissions in the first place.  If Yale can’t stir itself to exclude, say, a Klansman or a jihadist based on the evil organizations and ideology he has espoused, what does that say about the value of admission to Yale at all? 

Underlying this plea that “academic freedom” ought to give Mr. Rahmatullah’s Taliban past  a pass is, I think, a profound fear of rocking the boat.  My friend Mark Oppenheimer has suggested that the decisions of Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions deserve more deference.  Why should we go second-guessing their professional judgment about who ought to be a Yalie and who shouldn’t? 

I used to agree with that idea.  Before Mr. Rahmatullah came through, it was convenient to assume that admissions decisions were, if necessarily somewhat arbitrary, at least sincere and legitimate.  Most, I’m certain, still are.  But today Mark, and many of those Yale undergrads crying “academic freedom”, are asking me to pretend that a system that doesn’t even blink at the Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister—that in fact welcomes him precisely because of his “interesting” background—is above criticism.  I can’t do that. 

Emperor.  Breeze.  Flap.  Flap.  Flap.

The Tat Maxwell Defense—Mr. Rahmatullah was brought to America and to Yale by some folks in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who have formed the “International Education Foundation” to promote this sort of cultural exchange.  Members of the foundation are Mike Hoover, the filmmaker and CBS cameraman who first met Mr. Rahmatullah in Afghanistan, Yale alum Robert Schuster, and area mom Tatiana "Tat" Maxwell. Last week, Maxwell and Hoover talked about the controversy in their local paper

I’ll respond to their personal criticisms of us later this week. But their defense of Mr. Rahamtullah and of the Taliban--in effect, that they're not that bad and we have a lot to learn from them--deserves a closer look.

Upon learning of Hashemi’s presence at the university, two graduates, Clinton Taylor and Debbie Bookstaber, launched a campaign called “Nail Yale” to get people to mail false fingernails to the university to protest the Taliban’s treatment of women. They say the Taliban yanked fingernails of Afghan women who wore nail polish, a claim disputed by Jackson resident Tatiana Maxwell, president of the foundation set up to help pay for Hashemi’s education.

“It’s not even a legitimate, documented thing,” Maxwell said. “The Taliban certainly do some bad things ... but get your facts right.”

The Yale alumni who have been featured on Fox News and MSNBC are “patently uninformed,” Maxwell said. “There’s no substance to what they are talking about.”

Get your facts right, indeed, Ms. Maxwell.  From Amnesty International:

On at least one occasion, such punishments have taken the form of bodily mutilation. A woman in the Khayr-Khana area of Kabul in October 1996 was reported as having the end of her thumb cut off by the Taleban. This ‘punishment’ was apparently meted out because the woman was caught wearing nail varnish.

But that’s just the beginning of Ms. Maxwell’s own spin on the Taliban and their spinmeister:

When she first heard about him she was extremely skeptical.

“Why would I want to listen to this Taliban?” she said, recalling her initial reaction.

Maxwell had been passionate about Afghanistan for years and supported the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The independent organization of Afghan women fights for human rights and social justice in their country.

Off Maxwell went to the talk, armed with burkha and ready to face off with the mysterious Taliban guy. But after listening to him for a few minutes, she was “completely overtaken by him,” as he was “very intelligent, self-effacing and incredibly knowledgeable,” she said.
“He just seemed unbelievably credible,” Maxwell said.

The next day she attended another talk he gave at Teton County Library and invited him to come and stay with her....

Maxwell sees the education of Hashemi as a two-way street. “We can learn as much from him as he can learn from us,” she said.

As a society, there is much we can learn about Islam, the Taliban and this incredible rift between the United States and the Middle East, she said. “If not, we are just making assumptions,” Maxwell said.

Ms. Maxwell’s immediate, credulous acceptance of Mullah Omar’s personal advisor sounds pathologically naïve, but she is not the only one.  Former Dean of Admissions for Yale Richard Shaw underwent a similar conversion when he first met Mr. Rahmatullah:

"When I first met him I was a little anxious,'' recalls Shaw, ... ''My perception was, 'It's the enemy!' But the interview with him was one of the most interesting I've ever had. I walked away with a sense: Whoa! This is a person to be reckoned with and who could educate us about the world."

Ms. Maxwell, to her credit, is active in charities and international organizations that aid refugees.  Yet within a few minutes she was offering the spare room to someone who, in the summer of 2001, was justifying the capital trials of international aid workers, perhaps workers like those Ms. Maxwell supports.

Ms. Maxwell is rightly appalled by violence and hatred against homosexuals.  When interviewed about a sculpture commemorating the murder of Matthew Shepherd, she responded that she was “moved” by the tribute to Shepherd: “I think the message is a wonderful one," she said. "It’s hard to go against ’Do not hate.’ The mere thought of a human being left on a fence is highly emotional for me."  Yet after a dose of Mr. Rahmatullah’s blandishments, she helped pay for his freshman year at Yale. 

The Taliban he advised and defended, of course, used to debate whether homosexuals should be pushed from a high wall to their deaths, or crushed by bulldozing the wall on top of them.  Eventually the crushers won out.  While a the idea of a human being on a fence may be highly emotional for Ms. Maxwell, the idea of a human being crushed beneath one must be somewhat less compelling.

After Dick Cheney’s recent hunting accident, Ms. Maxwell welcomed him to Jackson Hole wearing a sign that proclaimed, “Dick Cheney is not a straight shooter.” Yet, this guy in Mr. Rahmatullah’s Taliban is a straight shooter:

The Taliban certainly do some bad things, to use Ms. Maxwell’s modest phrase.  Books have been written about the bizarre, totalitarian, misogynist, immiserating, barbaric nature of their reign.  One of them, Ahmad Rashid’s Taliban, is referenced in the Jackson Hole article linked above, but only to make the point that Unocal might possibly stand to profit from a pipeline through Afghanistan.  The litany of their horrors, with which both the reporter and Ms. Maxwell are obviously familiar, is omitted. 

Uncanny, isn’t it?  There’s a reason the Taliban sent this fellow abroad to lie for them.  He’s good.  He’s smooth.  He plays limousine liberals like fine violins.  Even now the Yale administration and most of its faculty and students—especially those on usually vocal left—are refusing to speak out against the evil he represented.  Their ignorance is willful.  Their gullibility is inexcusable.  Their silence is damning.


In an effort to hold Yale accountable for its frighteningly bad judgment, we have urged concerned citizens to contact Yale’s President.   He has raised the drawbridge, hoping the problem will go away.  It won’t. 


Yale is accountable, ultimately, to the members of its Corporation, which is meeting in mid-April.  We have posted their mailing addresses—as well as some fax and e-mail contacts—on our blog here.  We hope you will join us now in spreading the word and contacting as many members of the Yale Corporation as you can.  Urge them to take responsibility for Yale’s blunder and put this ridiculous episode behind them.