As Harvard students, we’re spoon-fed an awful lot of codswallop about our university. Best this, first that; it’s sunshine and rainbows all the time. But Harvard students have always been wiser than our resident propagandists have assumed. We’ve been taught to challenge authority and never to shy away from calling a spade a spade. Consequently, we complain a lot, and we always have.
Any undergraduate who reads The Crimson will tell you how rarely it is delivered to their room, as promised. They’ll also be able to recite the complement of contemporary complaints that define our lives at students. We are consigned to horrific email addresses because of our ethnic origins—just ask firstname.lastname@example.org. We have to put up with crappy advising. Student group leaders have been dragged in front of the Administrative Board and threatened with every conceivable injustice, just because some weakling freshman puked in the bushes behind the Advocate or an impatient punch pissed on a patrol car outside the Fox. If we want a wholesome meal in a dining hall, we’re supposed to want it around the same time of day that our grandparents do. The list goes on and on, an endless make-work project for our self-important advocates on the Undergraduate Council (UC).
But whining at Harvard is today facing a grave threat to its very existence. In a cruel blow to academic freedom, truth, and justice, the Faculty voted at its meeting this past Tuesday to put the kibosh on a motion by anthropology professor J. Lorand Matory ’82, which resolved, “that this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.” With such a blow to free speech, the Faculty have put their imprimatur on the death spiral of dissent on this campus.
Matory has been a vocal crusader for all things right and just at Harvard, from the vote of “no-confidence” he spearheaded against He Who Must Not Be Named in March 2005, to his Sept. 14 Crimson op-ed accusing the Harvard community—including the Jews on The Crimson who agreed to publish the piece in the first place—of censoring anti-Zionist opinions.
Now, having been out of the news for a whole two months—an indignity too great for even the most camera-shy anthropologist—Matory seemed eager to inject himself back into the headlines by turning his latter editorial into a Faculty resolution. The legislation was certainly timely—it confronted the acute lack of quotations from J. Lorand Matory in this newspaper.
And while Matory succeeded in cracking the front page, his colleagues cruelly rebuffed his sentiments. The Faculty thus poked a fatal hole in the dike that holds back the deluge of repression that threatens to turn “fair” Harvard into Arab-hating, Dictator-inviting Columbia in a heartbeat.
One would think it obvious that a room full of serious academics ought to support such a non-partisan, non-confrontational affirmation of free speech and academic inquiry. But on Tuesday, the motion was tabled. “People with a broad range of perspectives” now cannot “feel safe” here. Even as I write these words, I can’t help looking over my shoulder for the pack of torch-wielding, PhD-holding barbarians who are doubtless closing in on me, hateful of my broad range of perspectives.
The legions of complainers at Harvard now must genuinely fear being repressed by the same white Zionist-Fascist patriarchy that has so oppressed Matory during his career. That, as Matory has argued, those who challenge Israeli policies “tremble in fear” of repercussions is simply appalling. No doubt former University President Lawrence H. Summers himself was similarly terrified when he claimed in 2003 that, “there is much…in Israel’s foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged.”
Matory, of course, should be a model for every member of our community who is committed to the free and open exchange of ideas. During an appearance on a local PBS talk show in February 2006, Matory justified his opposition to Summers’ presidency by proclaiming that Summers “was telling us that people who insist that Palestinians have rights should be quiet.” Such courage to tell truth to power is the sort of behavior that Harvard has always encouraged. Yet this week, the Faculty begged to differ.
Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz challenged Matory after his television appearance and Matory, ever an exemplar of the openness he so venerates, responded with the utmost maturity and aplomb. Dershowitz has said that when he asked Matory to prove that Summers had ever actually denied the rights of Palestinians, Matory flew into a rage, chastising Dershowitz for being an incompetent professor, unfit for teaching at a university like Harvard. This, surely, is the sort of “civil dialogue” that the Faculty ought to encourage. I wonder if the UC is looking for a new faculty advisor.
Failing to encourage J. Lorand Matory’s expression of his “reasoned and evidence-based ideas” threatens the very core of this institution of higher learning almost as much as cutting off the UC’s party grants. By ignoring the earnest, non-partisan concerns of a humbly courageous anthropology professor, the Faculty have condemned us all to a future under the heavy fog of repression and hatred. Social lubricants be damned, we must build upon the wisdom of our classical forebears and proclaim that, at Harvard, there is truth in whining. Give us bitching, or give us death.
Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.