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Interview: Thomas Doherty in Defense of the Infidel

TD/Brandeis infidelAfter being abused by Moslems in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali moved to the Netherlands. She became an outspoken critic of Islam and wrote a screenplay for Submission, a 2004 movie that specifically critiques Moslem treatment of women. The picture’s director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist. A note found on his corpse threatened to assassinate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who’d become a member of Dutch Parliament.

Ali, who denounced Islam following the 9/11 attack on the United States, wrote about her internal struggle with her Islamic faith in Infidel, a 2007 New York Times bestseller reprinted with a foreword by the late Christopher Hitchens, which, according to a Publishers Weekly review, “delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam informed by a genuine understanding of the religion.”

Ali was recently named as recipient of an honorary degree by Brandeis University, which invited her to speak to students during commencement—and promptly withdrew the honor and invitation after a fundamentalist Islamic group raised objections and coordinated a campaign against the infidel, a term which is Latin for without faith.

Upon the controversial Brandeis decision, few spoke up in defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali—and, I noticed, almost no one from Brandeis University came to the infidel’s defense.

As a longtime intellectual who never attended college, I have nevertheless become aware that college professors do not typically speak out against colleges that placate political correctness or submit to smear campaigns, let alone speak up against a college for whom they are employed.

But I recently discovered—and talked with—one who did.

His name is Thomas Doherty, a film scholar at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Doherty, cultural historian with special interest in Hollywood cinema, is chair of the American Studies program at Brandeis, an associate editor for the film magazine Cineaste and film review editor for the Journal of American History. His books include Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Following the Brandeis-Ali affair, Doherty gave a short interview to the press in which he said he refused to sign the letter and added that he thinks Ali is a “courageous freedom fighter”. We spoke briefly before the interview, confirmed the interview in e-mail correspondence and talked at length about the author Ali, the university and the risk of speaking out for reason. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: Why have you chosen to defy the university by speaking out for a known infidel—an atheist against Islamic fundamentalism—who has been targeted by terrorists, singled out by your employer for denunciation and cast out?

Thomas Doherty: This wasn’t a difficult call. 86 faculty members of about 350 faculty members at Brandeis signed the letter [denouncing Ali and demanding her removal from the list of honored recipients]. I got a call from Associated Press and they asked what I thought. I said that she’s a courageous feminist who is putting her life at risk to defend women’s rights. I didn’t know her work well. I knew her mostly from her film Submission. I thought she was a great choice for receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis, which typically names white males. When I first heard about the letter, I thought it was bizarre that there was controversy. When I read the letter, I was shocked. It’s pretty depressing.

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any to your comments supporting Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Brandeis administration?

Thomas Doherty: I’ve heard nothing from the administration. When you’re tenured, it doesn’t matter. What can they do—give me a smaller raise?

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any from fellow faculty members?

Thomas Doherty: I got a very gracious letter from Bernadette Brooten who wrote the [denunciation] letter. I’ve received support and agreement from a couple of my colleagues but that’s here in the American Studies department—so we study America and we might be considered an outlier.

Scott Holleran: What is the most common response if any from students?

Thomas Doherty: I haven’t talked to students yet. I must have gotten 40 or 50 letters in support saying ‘what happened to the university I graduated from?’ Those are mostly from lawyers and professors, alumnus of Brandeis. Frankly, I’d never raise something like this in class.

Scott Holleran: When you first became aware of the campaign against Ali, did you think the campaign would fail or succeed?

Thomas Doherty: First, I was stunned. They announced the honorary degree and then my wife told me Megyn Kelly was talking about the university’s decision on Fox News. I had heard that the women’s studies professors were upset with choice of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. That didn’t sound right to me. Then, I read the letter. I didn’t think their campaign would succeed—I thought it would fail. I was surprised how quickly Brandeis University collapsed.

Scott Holleran: Have you seen Submission?

Thomas Doherty: Yes. I just checked out her new film Honor Diaries. It’s sort of an arty protest against Islam. It has pictures of women in a chador with projections of the Koran over it. It’s your basic art protest against an ideology which happens all the time in film. There are protests against patriarchy, Mormonism, Catholicism. I didn’t think of her [2004] film Submission as especially formidable or controversial. It really came to my knowledge when the movie’s director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated [by an Islamic fundamentalist]. I thought at the time that people in the arts should have been more aware of that. So I was surprised that the Oscars in 2005 did not honor [Van Gogh]. The guy was literally killed for making a film. I got in touch with a friend at the [trade publication] Hollywood Reporter who confirmed that Van Gogh was not mentioned during the [Academy Awards] ceremony. There wasn’t any kind of homage. I thought then that if there had been a gay filmmaker who made a film against Christianity and had been assassinated by a Christian fundamentalist, there would have been an homage.

51b6YKbnkjLScott Holleran: Have you read Infidel?

Thomas Doherty: No. I have read sections of it. I’m not an expert on this woman. I’ve never met her. I’ve had no contact with her. I’m mostly a film guy, so she came to my consciousness through film. What I know about her is that she was mutilated under [Islamic] law and severely abused and when she told her story in film, someone murdered the director and put a death sentence on her. When someone’s been trying to kill you for 10 years and you speak out against them, it’s not insane.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible that the university became aware of the campaign against Ayaan Hirsi Ali and decided that it was unable to protect and defend the students and faculty against the threat of initiation of force by Islamic jihadists?

Thomas Doherty: I have no idea how the decision was made.

Scott Holleran: Do you agree with Brandeis alum Jeffrey Herf, author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006), who wrote to Brandeis President Fred Lawrence that the university’s decision is “an act of cowardice and appeasement”?

Thomas Doherty: Yes.

Scott Holleran: Do you agree with Mr. Herf that “… the Nazi interpretation of Christianity as well as the core texts of the Christian tradition itself, were used by the Nazis to justify their mass murders”?

Thomas Doherty: The Nazis would use anything to justify their mass murders. If you look at the Nazi propaganda, they were propagandizing against the pope too. Look at the cartoons—they did it because Hitler wanted no gods before him, so there’s a lot of anti-Catholicism.

Scott Holleran: Your work centrally addresses the conflict between the individual and the state in your books Hollywood and Hitler and Hollywood’s Censor. Do you see your opposition to the university’s withdrawal of the honorary degree as part of a career theme exploring submission to slavery?

Thomas Doherty: No. This is an easy call. If you believe in freedom of expression then you support people who believe that as well. I oppose the totalitarian mindset. She’s put her life on the line since 2004—we are talking about someone who has literally put her life on the line. The notion that 13 members of the faculty in women’s studies would oppose this woman is mind-boggling. I have no idea why.

Scott Holleran: Both feminists and multiculturalists claim that all people and cultures are equal in every sense, so they accept the egalitarian ideal that all cultures and religions, for example, are equal in every way—if religion means female genital mutilation, so be it—and one must never judge—

Thomas Doherty: —That’s what they put forward but there’s obviously a judgment here in the end against Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I believe in feminism but you have a Third World Somali woman so how much more multicultural can you get? This woman’s being shut down. If someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t under the umbrella of feminism, who is?

Scott Holleran: What is your estimate of her new movie, Honor Diaries?

Thomas Doherty: I like it. She’s interviewed in it and she executive produced the film. It’s about nine Moslem women fighting to improve conditions in predominantly Moslem countries ruled by Sharia law, with female genital mutilation, and other than Ayaan Hirsi Ali, most of the women self-identify as Moslem so the theological criticism is from within the orb of Islam. [Islamic advocacy group Council for American-Islamic Relations, which drove the campaign to pressure Brandeis University to withdraw Ali’s honorary degree] wants to shut the film down, too.

Scott Holleran: The Brandeis statement said that “[t]he selection of Ms. Hirsi Ali further suggests to the public that violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus. We cannot accept Ms. Hirsi Ali’s triumphalist narrative of western civilization, rooted in a core belief of the cultural backwardness of non-western peoples.” But the Brandeis University motto is: “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.” Is the Brandeis motto a fraud?

Thomas Doherty: In this case it certainly is. If you look back to the 1950s, Brandeis was founded not just as a celebration of the Jewish experience but also from the very beginning we welcomed the liberal leftist college professors—we got Herbert Marcuse—so to see this particular arc come around is particularly distressing given the Brandeis tradition.

Scott Holleran: Do you think your own life may be at risk for speaking out for the infidel?

Thomas Doherty: I hope not. [Pauses] No, I don’t think so. I’ve received no death threats. Brandeis is a great place. [Pauses] There’s an expression in Yiddish shanda which means you’ve disgraced us and reflected poorly on Jews—shanda. This is a big shanda.

The Press Defies the State

PPThough serving what is largely a symbol of pretentiousness, the Pulitzer Prize juries boldly defied the American government and awarded the highest prizes to those who reported facts disclosed by an American who worked for the government, defied the government, fled the country, heroically spoke against total government control and was deemed a traitor by the state.

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize today for a series of stories that exposed the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs. An award also went to a team associated with the British-based Guardian newspaper, which also reported extensively about the NSA’s secret programs. The Guardian’s NSA articles are also based on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former government employee and contractor who fled to exile in Russia.

In a statement about the awards, the Jeff Bezos-owned Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, said today that the NSA reporting exposed a national policy “with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights” and that “[d]isclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service…In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

But, as far as what barely remains of a free press is concerned, the best part of what Baron said is that, without reporting on Snowden’s disclosures:

  We never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power.”

Today’s press is bullied, pressured and dominated by the state, and permeated by faith in either the dogma of statism or traditionalism, as evidenced by most of media including MSNBC and Fox News, a fact reflected by the worst part of what Baron’s statement says: “… As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

The free press is not based on need and does not exist to have a conversation, though a conversation may be fostered and may occur, whether a conversation is acknowledged by the leader of the executive branch in a republic based on individual rights. By using the language of the Obama administration, which controls the government that has a monopoly on the use of force and has seized unprecedented power through unconstitutional means, the Post‘s editor undercut the truth of what he said – that individual rights are paramount. The press exists to express, report and speak in free exercise, but at least the editor identified, named and defended individual rights, he said it out loud, and he said it in defiance of a government that exhibits contempt for the rights of the individual, aims to destroy the nation based on this sacred ideal and seeks total power over every aspect of the individual’s life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness.

The nation’s capital newspaper editor defied the nation’s government in explicit support of “the rights of the individual.” This fact, and the free exercise of press independence, is pure progress.

Mickey Rooney

MickeyRooney (courtesy Getty Images)From the Andy Hardy movies to his appearance as a security guard in Night at the Museum (2006), Mickey Rooney, for all of his wives, antics and flamboyance, was an actor who was capable of creating memorable characters in strong performances. I think I first noticed him during a TV showing of his movie Captains Courageous (1937) with Spencer Tracy, an excellent and powerful film to this day. I was always moved by his volcanic performance as Whitey in Boys Town (1938), also with Tracy as a Catholic priest, in the climactic scene when hero-worshipping Pee-Wee is downed. Rooney as Whitey makes the tragic scene feel like a sock to the stomach.

Whether he was playing iconic title roles in Young Tom Edison or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and later as an old horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979), and even in those silly Andy Hardy pictures with Judy Garland, he was always a jaunty or pugnacious screen presence. He had an energy that was quintessentially American. The obituaries describe Mickey Rooney, who was 93 years old when he died this weekend, as America’s boy next door. But really he was more than that. He used his voice to perfection in several animated or stop motion Christmas movies for TV. He used his foulest language in new types of villainous roles in pictures such as The Domino Principle (1977). He became something of a regular guest like the late David Brenner or writer Truman Capote (whose novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted for the film in which Rooney played a racial caricature that does not age well) on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He played on Broadway in Sugar Babies and on TV as a mentally retarded man in Bill. Rooney could play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and Judy Garland on her own TV show. The Brooklyn native had a rare, remarkable career.

Whatever his real personality and pitfalls, Mickey Rooney had talent and he was committed to a career of singing, dancing and acting, crafting roles that inspired generations of plucky – or sneaky – boys and cantankerous if wise old men. As an archetype, he embodied the spirit of a scrappy American youth, stealing away with a runaway slave down the Mississippi River or telling Father Flanagan off, getting naughty with Johnny Carson or nasty with Gene Hackman, or creaking with wisdom for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or a boy who wants to ride a stallion to victory. Shirley Temple Black was recently lost, too, and she was another child star who indelibly marked an American cultural standard that disappeared long ago. Mickey Rooney’s death marks the end of a line that traces back to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Robert Downey, Jr.

RDJAs awards shows have proliferated, they have become proportionately meaningless except as the equivalent of momentary outbursts of some sort of cultural display. Miley Cyrus comes to mind. The Oscars used to revel in glamor, though less and less so. The Grammys would indicate the general state of popular music. And so on. This makes Robert Downey Jr.’s appearance at this weekend’s Kids’ Choice Awards, concocted by Nickelodeon and sponsored by Bounty, Toyota and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, less a leading cultural indicator than merely another high point lost in the increasingly wild and swirling news cycle that long ago ceased to be filtered by sound judgment from rational minds.

It doesn’t help that Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, The Soloist) appeared to accept an award called Best Male Buttkicker. Ours is a fast-moving era that encourages short-range, fragmentary half-thoughts instead of long-range, contemplative rationality as that awards title suggests. That’s too bad because Downey, an actor who is heroic in real life for having beaten the monster of drug addiction, an enormous achievement in a confusing world, said something important. That he chose to say it to an appropriate audience, children, with clarity of topic and theme, is impressive.

Accepting the award, he told the audience: “You know I wasn’t always a buttkicker. In fact, life has kicked my proverbial butt countless times in many ways for many years, until I decided one day to start kicking back. Now look at me!” Cashing in on what that really means, he pointedly turned today’s rampant look at me! self-centeredness into something more constructive, adding, as a poignant afterthought: “Remember when life is kicking your butt, never forget to kick it back right in the face.” In this context, Downey’s is a well-told lesson in self-renewal; that life means fighting, being assertive and, if necessary, self-defensive with the aggression aimed to hit the right spot. Too often in life we are told to passively yield, accept, resign and be at peace, or let it be or let it go, regardless of context. Downey’s words are a crucial and urgent counsel to today’s scoreless, overtested, indoctrinated youth to do the opposite and choose to judge, reject victimhood and if necessary fight back. What he said goes against everything today’s youths are being taught and propagandized. What he lives by example – and projects onto the screen – offers the youthful of all ages proof that life is worth fighting for.

Boeing’s Missing Big Jet

malaysia-airlines-boeing-777As with the attacks at Boston, Fort Hood and Benghazi, there is every reason to suspect Islamic terrorism as the cause of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. There is no evidence of a crash.

In fact, reports about the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared a week ago, suggest that the Boeing 777 extended range aircraft continued to travel in a westward direction with the transponder turned off. This indicates to me, even if it turns out not to be the case, a high probability that the plane was hijacked by Islamic terrorists.

The flight originated in Malaysia, an Islamic monarchy, with 239 people on board. Two of the passengers are Iranians traveling on one-way, cash-bought tickets after reportedly posing for pictures and apparently boarding together with stolen passports both traced to Thailand, though Interpol says the men are probably not terrorists. The Wall Street Journal reports that data shows the plane kept operating for hours. Reuters reports that technology proves that someone with aviation knowledge flew the plane west toward the Indian Ocean. The Los Angeles Times reports that the British satellite company Inmarsat confirms that the plane was flying in an “automated” “routine” transmitting electronic signals. Passengers’ families have reported that cell phone signals, texts and other data indicate that their loved ones’ cellular phones remained active after the plane disappeared.

Why do I think there’s a potential link to Islamic terrorism?

It is widely known that Moslem terrorists use commercial airliners as weapons for catastrophic acts of war. The 9/11 attack, executed with four hijacked airliners, remains the worst siege in U.S. history. The Boeing 777 is a huge aircraft and the threat of a commercial plane being used as a missile, possibly loaded with nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, is real. Malaysia is the country where the chief terrorist financing the Islamic terrorist Bojinka plot to simultaneously blow up 11 airliners was arrested. It is also well known that Islamic terrorist state sponsors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to destroy the West and hijacking an airliner of that size fits the jihadist profile. The lessons of history, from Arab terrorists slitting stewardess throats to gain access to jetliner cockpits in the 1970s to Arab terrorists slitting stewardess throats to gain access to jetliner cockpits in 2001 and unsolved aviation mysteries such as the explosion of TWA 800, must not be ignored.

Americans ought to remember the first words heard by U.S. air traffic control on the morning of September 11, 2001, spoken by lead Islamic terrorist hijacker Mohammed Atta as he hijacked the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11: “we have planes…we have some planes.”