On October 31, 2006, President Amy Gutmann held her annual Halloween party triggering an image and series of events that demonstrates much of what ails academia these days. While there are conflicting reports as to what actually happened, the photograph and her response to its publication indicates a problem that goes well beyond President Gutmann’s problematic behavior.
A picture to regret: Grinning honkey trying to be generous of spirit.
As far as can be ascertained, the following events occurred:
President Gutmann allowed herself to have pictures taken with student guests at the party one by one, including with a senior student, Saad Saadi, who chose to dress as a suicide bomber with a kafiya around his head, a toy rifle and replica of bombs around his torso. All the photos in question, later posted at Saadia’s website, and still later taken down, were shot at the President’s home, during party she sponsored for her students.
Among the photos taken at the party we find Mr. Saadi and other guests at the party enacting “execution” scenarios that have become the “snuff films” of the 21st century for a wide range of web-surfers.
Not to get too psychoanalytic, but there is something profoundly sado-masochistic about this one that reminds me of the self-flagellating self-loathing that Pascal Bruckner talks about in his latest book.
Another photo was taken with a child in a superhero costume aiming Mr. Saadi’s gun at the camera. This was titled “Influencing a future Mujahideen.”
Saadia, under the guise of “just good fun” gets to offer American kids that thrill of destruction and inflicting fear with which Palestinian elites regularly corrupt their children.
Yet another was taken with a student wearing a Statue of Liberty pose, labeled: Freedom Fighter and Freedom Statue.
Saadia plays his hand. He’s selling this as “freedom fighter.” The “statue” shows no self-respect.
Saadi said when he approached Gutmann for the photo, she joked, “‘How did they let you through security?” It remains open whether Gutmann understood he was a suicide bomber, or just noticed the gun. Actually, it’s a good question. Didn’t the cops at security have enough self-respect to object to the costume?
Saadi added that while some party guests expressed disapproval at the costume, more people were complimentary. These students at the party who complimented him probably did so with this Michael Moore notion of jihadis as “minute men” in mind.
Engineering senior Saad Saadi came dressed as a suicide bomber, or, as he alternately titled the costume, a “freedom martyr.”
The whole incident has caused quite an uproar. Indeed, Saadi himself has taken down the photos and apologized with apparent sincerity.
My friend, Jason, and I express our condolences and sympathy to all offended by our costumes. We wish to make it clear that we do not support terrorism, violence, or anything that is against society. There is no agenda or statement associated with our behavior shown in these pictures. The costumes are meant to portray scary characters much like many other costumes on Halloween. We are deeply sorry for anyone who has been hurt or upset. Additionally, we strive for all societies to instill healthy non-violent values.
As I read this, I feel something like Otto (Klein) in a Fish Called Wanda after the upside down Archie (Cleese) apologized so perfectly he couldn’t find something to pick a fight over. In comparison with Gutmann’s PR advisors (see below), I’d hire these guys. The question is, are these the words of a demopath or a sincere person committed to the values enunciated?
President Gutman has responded to the brouhahahaha with a statement that epitomizes the problem:
Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.
The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.
What PR committee put this together? And where is Prof. Amy Gutmann, professor specializing in, of all things, democracy. Is this all we get? A tired repetition of the “free speech” trope which has long ago - at least among people thinking hard about democracy and the threats it faces -been problematized (to the non-initiate, that means you can’t just invoke it and expect people to nod yes, it’s got lots of problems as a formulation). What we have here is a carefully worded statement designed not to offend “either side.” But as Winfield Myers says: this is a moral dodge.
Where was the leadership President Gutmann invoked at her inaugural address:
The higher education community must take the higher road. We need to fix our moral compass, fuel our will, and fire our imaginations by what unites rather than divides…Let us extend the example of Muslim and Jewish students at Penn who pursued dialogue and fellowship after the tragedy of 9/11.
Here’s certainly one track to the moral compass: seek the kinds of things that unite (like mutual respect). Here’s the way to discourse. What unites us. Not what fires the imagination towards the most pathologically destructive and divisive ways.
I don’t know - but would be very interested in - what happened in that Jewish-Muslim dialogue, how much it was constructive, how much it was Muslim demopaths playing Jewish dupes into kashering “martyr minutemen”… Maybe it is only now that the temper of that dialogue will be tested.
Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh have discussed this. The legal thinker Volokh points to the “right to express,” and finds merit in Saadi’s explanation that Halloween is for scary costumes. Reynolds presses the point about bad taste, that by not refusing to be pictured, even sending the student away, Gutmann permitted for this costume what she would not for a KKK or a Nazi one. In other words, if we have limits to what we allow in politically correct conditions - and no one would deny that UPenn does - then her unwillingness to speak out forcefully meant that suicide terrorism was politically correct, even if at the margins. While KKK and Nazi merit rebuke, we cannot quite bring ourselves to rebuke these… “freedom fighters”(?!).
I agree with Reynolds here: this is not a matter of law - of course he has the right to dress up no matter how grotesquely - but of taste. How does the President of a University react when asked to be friendly with someone who chooses such a costume at a time when suicide terrorism is the waxing scourge of the planet.
(I note that Blake considered taste the organizer of imagination in the redeemed state.)
Of course the democratic ideal of free speech and tolerance involves allowing some very deranged and bizarre things - often hostile to the “powers that be” - to reach the public, things that prime divider societies systematically, and if necessarily, violently supress. We don’t do that. We allow people to speak their minds. But democracies thrive not only when anyone can say anything, but when members of the public have the good sense to distance themselves from the morally grotesque things that some people will inevitably say when given that freedom. And among such moral depravities, I would definitely include the notion that blowing oneself up amidst “enemy” civilians with home-made cluster bombs constitutes a vehicle to “freedom” that will get me to heaven.
No serious historian of democratic revolution could possibly argue that a revolutionary movement with such utter contempt for human life even before it takes power would ever, were it to achieve its goals, bring freedom. On the contrary, the only clearly parallel case, that of the Communist revolutionaries and their early use of terror before taking power indicates a direct link between early behavior and the extermination of tens of millions of “enemies.” If we ignore this tragic tendency of revolutionary energies, if we fail to offer rebuke at an early stage in their development, we pave the way to the success of some of the most terrible tendencies in mankind.
The very argument, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” embodies the victory of demopath over dupe. In some extremely rare, desparate and highly limited cases, such an argument might possibly be argued. But to apply it as a formula that seals with approval all terrorists, including the most depraved in the history of a depraved phenomenon - i.e., suicide terrorists who blow themselves up in the middle of a civilian population, strikes me as folly for those who cherish freedom.
For the demopath this is a spectacular victory: “I get you to approve my designs for your conquest as the embodiment of the very values you cherish and I plan to destroy.” For the dupe this is fool’s bargain: “I accept your good faith, despite the multiple signs I should be wary, and I get to keep doing what I’m doing without dealing with really big problems.”
This is not to say that Saad Saadi, who is apparently not Muslim, is a demopath. I am willing to accept his “Halloween” explanation. His website is above all superficial. Not an essay, not a position on any political issue. Mostly indulgent (semi) hi-tech silliness, and video-enabled narcissism. But he is, like everyone and probably more than most, subject to the mimetic force of suicide bombing and the death-cult deeds it inspires. In this sense, he is like a mini (very mini) Baudrillard, thrilled by any blow at the American/Western hegemon, even if the hegemon allows him the glorious indulgences of college and the blows represent the nadir of human depravity. In that sense he may be, in his own way, a dupe, enjoying his Halloween thrill of brushing up against nihilism just as some do with sexuality. For him, as for so many in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of post-2000 media, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is just another truism that no one even bothers to challenge.
And perhaps that’s what is the problem with President Gutmann. Not that she approves of suicide terrorism, not that, given a moment’s thought, she couldn’t wax eloquent on the moral depravity of the affair (although one wonders whether she thinks it’s born of despair or of the outrageous hope of genocidal hatred ). But it’s so much a part of the atmosphere now, that it’s not instinctive to recoil in horror as she should have. Nothing is more profoundly anti-civil, anti-democratic, anti-freedom than the deed of suicide terrorism and the world of Jihadi genocidal martyrdom that lies behind it. Nothing calls for a leader like President Gutmann to stand by her call to unite, than the courage to distance herself visibly from such acts of “free speech.” If our leaders don’t understand that the way they respond to the abuse of freedom is a fundamental part of the exercise of freedom, and a way to set the moral compass, then we may not survive our experiment in freedom. (Presumably Prof. Gutmann knows that democracy is an experiment… and that it can [and has] failed.)
And for those who think this is a tempest in a teapot, let me explain to you how this looks from the other side. Let’s consider the world according to honor and shame. Let’s go back to the picture:
This is a good illustration of the cultural dominance that anti-American Arab/Islamic nihilism feels and seeks over Western culture. They are big men, we are small women; they can play their very intentions to kill us right in front of us - even get us to play along - and we smile and think it’s cute and maybe just a little bit exhilirating. Saadi is not in the same game as President Gutmann, who beams like a beauty queen, high on a night of lady bountiful, the good witch of the West. He is serious, no smile. He looks out beyond the cameraman, eyeing another stage, another audience. To them he presents himself as an icon, an icon of victory. He won this round hands down.
Of course, we don’t see it this way. For us, if we wish to deal with the incident at all, we’d put it down to President Gutmann’s politeness, and to the principled stand for freedom of speech that she invoked. We are strong because we can tolerate such foolishness.
But let’s continue the honor-shame analysis: Gutmann knows she’s been embarrassed. That photo is one she’ll shudder to look at for a long time. So what’s her response? To take the licking and try and figure out what happened? Or to go for a legalistic figleaf and weasel out? Unfortunately we get, once again, the anti-modern, anti-democratic, but perfectly understandable choice of honor over honesty. (Update: She’s apologized, although like the pope, she apologizes for “the offense this photo has caused.”.)
What would it look like the other way around? That is, were Gutmann to be honest and seek integrity rather than saving face?
First, she’d say she made a mistake and that she greatly regrets her picture with this student. Instead of “the student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.” She could have said, I failed to exercise good taste and understanding of the stakes involved when I failed to ask the student to leave the premises immediately, reassuring him he has the right to dress as he wants, but not at the reception of a University President committed to finding a moral compass. And if not immediately, long before a second grotesque “re-enactment” of executions took place on the grounds.
But to do that would take courage. It would mean that President Gutmann would be ready to publicly say that one man’s terrorist is not another’s freedom fighter, most obviously in the case of suicide terrorists. It would mean telling the Arab Students and Muslim Students, who spend most of the time mainstreaming such poisonous drivel, that they were on notice, that that kind of demopathy was not welcome at University of Pennsylvania. It would mean showing both a passionate commitment to real democracy and even self-respect as a 21st century American, inheritor of a 230-year experiment in freedom.
Sounds like a teaching moment to me.
1) President Gutmann should use this unfortunate fiasco as a springboard to some real education for democracy and freedom. Among other things, she might prepare a major exhibit on suicide-terror victims from the world over, with particular attention to the massive and persistent losses suffered by Israelis since the beginning of this century.
2) She could ask Saad and Jason, and anyone else who thought the costume was cute (including the members of v arious violently anti-Israel groups on campus to attend a sensitivity training session in which students can experience what these martyrdom operations feel like from the side of Israeli civilians, in which they can begin to understand the morally depraved world of fanaticism that underlies these attacks.
3) The State of Israel and Israeli advocates could invite Saad and Jason to come to Israel, visit with some of the families of victims, speak to some of the Arabs who fear the spread of the “revolutionary forces” these two find worthy of admiration. Who knows, Saad, with his totemic identification with predatory cats, may be a dupe and not a demopath, and when confronted with the pain such juvenile fantasies inflict in real life, he might too change his tune and mature.
Ultimately, without that maturity, democracy cannot survive the onslaught of libido dominandi, the lust to dominate.