‘Pity the Lion’

By on July 19, 2005

Late yesterday, Professor Fred Baumann forwarded David and me an email he had sent to president Rawlins at Washington State University concerning the university’s recent endorsement of the heckler’s veto. Interestingly, Fred’s clever and funny response exemplifies the kind of biting criticism and satire that is so likely to get you in trouble on the contemporary campus:
Dear President Rawlins:
 
Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. A controversial musical is performed by students on your campus. An administrator, a Ms. Maldonado, convinced that it conveys evil messages, buys tickets for like-minded students in order to have them disrupt it. You find no violation of free speech here because the disruptors, in your view, have a right (supported by University dollars) to engage in disruption. Is that more or less a valid statement of the facts? Now let’s see how this looks in a parallel case. Another public agency, say a city government, pays goons to disrupt a concert or a performance put on by an unpopular minority group; it justifies itself by saying that its goons had the right of free speech. (Can you imagine the kind of obese, cigar-chomping Broderick Crawford type who would be given the part of the mayor in the Hollywood version? Or maybe they’d go for an oily, Gordon Gecko, type. But that’s your right now, isn’t it?)
 
This would be funny if it weren’t so scary. Actually it is funny, even though it’s scary. Ever heard the one about the little boy at Sunday school weeping over the picture of the Christian martyrs being eaten by lions in the arena? Asked why he was crying, he said: “there’s a lion in the corner without a single Christian.” Pity the lion; defend the “rights” of hired goons to shut people up. And all in the name of free speech! Impressive. Funny.
 
Of course, since the goons were hired (by your subordinate), they are acting as your agents. Thus the right of free, disruptive speech you are claiming, you are in fact claiming for yourself, on behalf of your agents, the ones who did the dirty work Ms. Maldonado (who in turn works for you) presumably didn’t quite want to engage in herself. This just adds to the baseness and comedy of the picture. Does the word “chutzpah” mean anything to you? If not, I will tell you that it is a Yiddish word, meaning “colossal nerve.” But there is a rich history of illustrative commentary, normally in the forms of jokes, which explain just how colossal the nerve involved in true chutzpah really is. The classic is always the one about the guy who murdered his parents and threw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. But I think claiming the right of free speech for hired goons to break up a student performance, thereby grossly violating the students’ rights of free speech, may be comparable.
 
There’s a foolish expression about someone or something being “beneath contempt.” Let me assure you that, assuming that my understanding of the facts is correct, I don’t think your administration is in the least beneath contempt. At this time you are right up there in the full-contempt zone, (and I remind you that contempt differs from hatred in that there is always an element of laughter in the former) and you can be pretty sure that my response is not idiosyncratic. This is the sort of thing—the pious Tartuffean bully-that Americans, fortunately, instinctively loathe. You will suffer a lot for this, both in mockery and indignation, I predict. Your best move is to backtrack as quickly as possible. Save what can be saved and try to start fresh.
 
And, when you’ve made the necessary apologies, ask yourself what you are doing with subordinates who think it is their business to disrupt school musicals because they expect to find them offensive. Was that part of their job description when you hired them? Or have you failed to make it clear to them that playing God wasn’t actually their administrative function? Don’t you think that explaining that might have been a good idea at the time? Or might be in the future? How did it happen, you might ask yourself, that your university has become such a glass bubble that you can engage in practices as a matter of course, that, outside its hothouse walls, would immediately be recognized as illegal, thuggish and hypocritical? Do you think, just maybe, that a little more diversity of viewpoint at your school might save you from this kind of fiasco?
 
Sincerely,
 
Fred Baumann
Professor of Political Science

Schools: Washington State University