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Stephen M. Walt

More on the Martin Peretz affair (UPDATED)

I hadn’t intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard’s current leadership. But seriously: You’d think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the ...

I hadn’t intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard’s current leadership. But seriously: You’d think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean — and also what they don’t mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.

To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims," and then went on to say that he didn’t think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.

These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard ’82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his "apology," Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that "Muslim life is cheap." Indeed, he declared that "this is a statement of fact, not value."

A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz’s name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:  

As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views."

In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic’s James Fallows (Harvard ’70) termed this response "not one of the university’s better efforts." As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz’s right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn’t object.

As should be obvious, this issue isn’t a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn’t it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.

And let’s also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard. 

And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, "no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry." So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn’t apply them consistently.

For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:

1. An open letter from Harvard students protesting the honor to Peretz, and the petition protesting Harvard’s policy that now has over 500 signatures, many from Social Studies alums.

2. James Fallows’ summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz’s achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you’re at it, you might read the Boston Globe’s editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.

And no, this isn’t just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn’t help when one of the nation’s premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America’s image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.

To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States.  Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.

As I write this, I’ve received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.

Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won’t have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.  

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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