Harvard at bay

Posted: Dec 06, 2002 12:00 AM
The back-and-forth at Harvard is much-noticed news almost everywhere. In Israel, to be sure, as also in the Arab press. But also in Great Britain and France, where anti-Semitism is a way of life, however well-mannered. The issue is a poet, Tom Paulin, an Oxford don who teaches this season at Columbia and was invited to give the Morris Gray lecture at Harvard.

Well, when this happened, some spoilsport publicized a remark the poet had made to an Egyptian weekly, to wit, that "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers on the West Bank "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them." That stretch of prosody is without discernible poetry, but this of course was not considered in ensuing events. The English Department at Harvard, on second thought, rescinded the invitation. President Lawrence Summers applauded this decision.

But what then happened was a firestorm of free-speech protest, in which three Harvard Law School luminaries figured, Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz and Charles Fried. The English Department, on third thought, reinvited the poet to speak, and now it was news all over the country and indeed the world.

We are asked to consider what are the bounds, if any, on utterances of a particular nature if inconsistent with civil comity in a university. We are asked what hate speech should the colleges hate, and how exactly to give voice to that hate. And, inevitably, whether academic freedom is exercised, or is flouted, by speech of a particular character.

What then to do? The New York Observer, which usually flutters if there is the faintest liberal breeze in the air, is stentorian on the subject. In its editorial, it says, "Columbia should fire Mr. Paulin immediately, on the principle that having an anti-Semite on the payroll does a disservice to Columbia professors, students and alumni who don't subscribe to the view that calling for the murder of Jews is something an Ivy League professor should be doing in his off hours." The other view, that of the law professors cited above, is that freedom of speech is absolute, and nowhere more ideally protected than in universities.

Well, what concretely to do about the poet's forthcoming lecture? There will of course be some picketers outside, but doesn't something a little more resourceful come to mind?

In the spring of 1962, Commander George Lincoln Rockwell was invited by a student committee at Hunter College in New York to be the speaker at one of its monthly events. Rockwell was the "Commander" of the American Nazi Party. He dressed in a Nazi commander's uniform, with swastikas here and there, and preached the faith of Hitler. He had a cadre of a dozen or two subordinate Nazis, and took such opportunities as he could to display the Nazi faith in Washington, where he was based, and elsewhere.

Hunter College's undergraduates were predominantly Jewish, and when news of the scheduled event was brought to Hunter president John Meng, a Roman Catholic, he made a decision which lives in Solomonic heraldry. It took the form of a letter to the faculty.

Today's students (he wrote) know of Nazism and what it did only by cursory reading. You and I know of it from direct experience in a world war. I will not overrule the invitation because I am committed to giving the student association plenary authority in the matter. But, as a symbol of the gravity of the invitation to Mr. Rockwell, I call on members of the faculty to join me in attending the Passover Assembly at Park Avenue at 7 p.m. That is when the meeting with Commander Rockwell is scheduled. I feel sure that many members of the student body will wish to join us in that memorial meeting.

That was a truly eloquent means of handling an aberrational invitation. Granted that Mr. Paulin is a poet, and not a Nazi. His problem is that he speaks Nazi language when he addresses the problems of the Mideast. That he is a poet is not, in the circumstances, what anybody is interested in, any more than it would have distracted the Hunter College community if George Lincoln Rockwell was also a rock star.

There are salient considerations that have been raised at Harvard, and it is these that President Summers of Harvard needs now to act on.