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It’s what UD has long called The Michael Dukakis Problem.

U Penn’s president is probably about to announce her resignation, and Harvard’s doesn’t look too secure either, after what everyone’s calling their “disastrous” congressional testimony. What’d they do wrong?

Same thing that sank Dukakis: Lack of emotion when emotion is clearly called for. A reporter asked Dukakis, a death penalty opponent, about whether he thought his wife being raped and murdered would affect his thinking on the penalty.

“No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” Perhaps there is validity in the criticism many directed toward [the questioner,] accusing him of injecting an unfair scenario into a policy discussion. Regardless, all I know is that when I heard Dukasis’ words, my brain red flagged, and my heart sank. For the candidate, in his response, came across as robotic, uncaring, and devoid of emotion. That night Dukakis’ poll numbers dropped from 49% to 42%.

On that fateful evening the candidate spoke only with his brain, and he completely disregarded his heart. This catastrophe would have been avoided had he said something like: “Barnard, I would want to murder, to torture, to rip from limb to limb anyone who even dared to hurt my wife or child. But, you see, with all of my heart, I want laws to protect me from the worst of me.”

The presidents need not have said something so vehement; but they needed to communicate their fundamental humanity, their capacity as sensitive human beings to be appalled by the cruelty of (in this instance) anti-semitism, and for whatever reason they didn’t go there. They waxed bureaucratic. Terrible mistake.

Margaret Soltan, December 8, 2023 1:27PM
Posted in: free speech

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9 Responses to “It’s what UD has long called The Michael Dukakis Problem.”

  1. Rita Says:

    I think that any way they answered, they would’ve lost. The point of the hearings was to demonstrate their institutions’ already well-documented hypocrisy on free speech, so if they’d gone all in and said that anti-Semitic speech is terrible and they feel the pain of the Jewish students, then the follow-up would’ve been, why don’t you do something about it as you did when you felt the pain of your black and trans and assorted other minority students and you cancelled speakers and sanctioned faculty over their pain-inducing views? To which, you know, no answer. They went the other way, and hedged about free speech, but of course the same hypocrisy is revealed in the other direction – so Harvard permits free speech when the speech advocates for Jewish genocide but not when the speech says that humans have two genders? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The way out of this one would’ve been to be less craven about everything else for the past decade.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: Absolutely. On sheer polemical grounds, given the campus nonsense that continues to go on, none of the prezzes has anywhere to go. But they might have saved their jobs and their big donors had they conceded some of the nonsense, and showed some simple humanity.

  3. Dmitry Says:

    Considering the US obsession with private property down to the millimeter, I wonder why they believe others can be forcibly displaced from their land, suppressed for generations, treated as animals, and yet still be full of love towards one and all. Would you be surprised if your indigenous populations hated you?

    As the host routinely rails, the wealthy have and will continue to donate billions to Harvard for the cachet and influence. What is at stake here is to point out the vapidity of “Have you stopped beating your dog?” as a tactic.

  4. JND Says:

    I wonder what the nice folk on the Penn Board were thinking when they hired Dr. Magill? Didn’t they have to know that she would respond to controversy in just this manner? Wouldn’t that have been exactly what they wanted in just about any controversy she would have faced except this one?

    Go Quakers!

  5. TAFKAU Says:

    It was stunning how poorly prepared the three presidents were. How could they not have known that that question (or something like it) was coming? They should have responded by saying, “Of course! It was despicable! But I am a bit confused because your party has always argued that we are obligated to protect free speech even when that speech is hateful. I welcome this change in your position.”

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: Yes. See this piece in The New Republic.

  7. Stephen Karlson Says:

    Yes, any one of those poseurs could have attempted to flip the script by offering a defense of free speech. To do so, though, would have copped to a double standard when it comes to the boilerplate about “demeaning” or “harassing” being grounds for disciplinary action.

  8. TAFKAU Says:

    Stephen: if that’s a response to me, I was saying just the opposite. My suggestion was for the presidents to flip the script by taking these questions as implicit permission to (continue to) curb offensive and hateful speech on campus. There are, after all, two ways to resolve the double standard.

  9. Stephen Karlson Says:

    UD: I’m not persuaded. You and Mike Munger and I are probably in the camp of Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee as not a good place to be, and that the coming Grim Strategy of punishment is not going to be pretty.

    Let’s suppose, though, that one of those poseurs had taken the “Of course, it was despicable.” Those Members of Congress could have gone to town on that. “Your code of conduct prohibits ‘demeaning’ or ‘harassing’ speech. Are you telling this committee that the code of conduct isn’t valid? Was it not valid when your university [insert PC atrocity here]?”

    And now, one of those poseurs has been stripped of her smirk and her lofty position. Good. And the Bears beat the Lions. Today is a day for asses kicked and names taken. I will take stock of the more troubling dimensions of the fallout tomorrow.

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