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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.

We the Living in 2014

Ayn Rand was asked to adapt her first novel, We the Living, which was published 78 years ago this week and has sold 3 million copies since, for the theatre and I recently learned that two never-before published versions of her stage play will be published this fall.

UncconqueredPalMacmillanAccording to Amazon’s book page for The Unconquered: With Another, Earlier Adaptation of We the Living, the hardcover volume by Rand will feature “the first and last versions (the latter entitled The Unconquered)…[w]ith a preface that places the work in its historical and political context, an essay on the history of the theatrical adaptation … and two alternative endings…” The new work is edited by philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed five years ago about the novel. He also teaches at OCON.

WetheLivingWe the Living is a bitter tale of a triangle in Soviet Russia and an epic story of ideas, love and life. The 1936 novel, which I wrote about for an article distributed by Scripps Howard and again in a review of the movie adaptation, is haunting, unforgettable and helpful to living everyday life.

Year in Review: 2013

American whistleblower Edward Snowden courtesy of The GuardianThis year gave us two types of men: Edward Snowden and Phil Robertson, or, the man of reason and the man of faith. The young man represents the spirit of youth; Snowden is an idealist who fled his own country for Hong Kong this summer, told the world about indiscriminate government surveillance on the entire population of the U.S. and made thoughtful arguments against government control over people’s lives. He was praised here first before many others even addressed what he did. He was called a hero by Ayn Rand’s heir. He was passionately defended by a prominent conservative intellectual who reported that Snowden had been moved to act by a foreign film about Communist surveillance.

Yet Snowden was roundly denounced for his whistleblowing act of heroism by leftists, conservatives and others, especially those from the Clinton/Bush/Obama administrations, and attacked by government. Tea Party types who made a movement based on opposing government control, challenging the welfare state and demanding new, radical solutions to U.S. problems were split on Snowden’s status as a hero.

They shouldn’t be. Edward Snowden is in every sense the best news of 2013, if America is to remain even partially free. Stating that he does not trust the Obama administration, he brought forth bold new evidence at enormous risk to his own life. From his efforts, we know that the government tracks the American people with the latest technology and captures detailed information about every individual without regard to the law. We know that the government lied about doing this. We know that not a single enemy attack or terrorist siege has been prevented, not that it would make mass surveillance right if it had. We know that the ways and means of government surveillance of Americans is enormous, alarming and unchecked. A federal judge challenged the constitutionality and rightly compared the statism to George Orwell’s novel 1984.

All of this is thanks to Edward Snowden.

Snowden brought Americans together in a way that opposing ObamaCare never could, even paving the way for a more unified, principled opposition to that unconstitutional act of fascism. He did so by thinking, speaking and acting on his own judgment, something few Americans do by my observation. He singularly enlightened the West and changed the world and he did it going by reason, of course, not taking Big Government on faith.

Most Americans do the opposite, as we saw in abundance by their rallying to the defense of an archaic old man who thinks, looks and talks like the mass murdering religious terrorist who destroyed the Twin Towers. He goes by faith, not by reason. He is primitive, not cognitive. His name is Phil Robertson. He leads the religious clan at the center of America’s most watched cable TV program.

DuckDynastyoldmanCourtesyofCrossmapDuring an interview with GQ, Robertson said blacks he observed were fine before civil rights laws were passed and gays, drunks and adulterers among others are going to hell. Robertson, a fundamentalist Christian, has previously made similarly ignorant statements, such as promoting the marrying of females as children, and the cable network suspended him when his new comments were widely broadcast. They did so on the grounds that his views are repugnant to their business ethics. When conservatives, including religious conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, erupted in a fury to defend Robertson on improper grounds, i.e., free speech – ignoring that the suspension does not violate the First Amendment – the network buckled to pressure and restored Robertson to the airwaves.

The man of faith triumphed. That he did so at the expense of another group that touts faith (belief without evidence) in dogma, GLAAD, an irrational gay activist group, is irrelevant to what matters. Robertson brought forth vile and repulsive views, in crude expressions reducing sex to the use of orifices, spreading irrationalism to a wider audience. He singularly darkened the West and changed the world. His dark, malevolent beliefs were defended, sanctioned and accepted based on faith, i.e., in conservatism, in false views of what constitutes free speech, and above all in God, tradition and religion.

Robertson is the opposite of Snowden.

Robertson’s mob is emboldened and they are gathering. What we witnessed in 2013 in the Duck Dynasty media backlash, as with other cultural shifts toward irrationalism, is the mainstreaming of religious fundamentalism. The left’s faith in the welfare state was legitimized long ago by conservatives – the right accepts the left’s morality of altruism – and now the right’s faith in the religious state is being legitimized by the left, and also by secular rightists and libertarians such as Camille Paglia, in return. It’s the convergence of left and right in the name of faith, not reason.

We’ll suffer the consequences soon enough. Phil Robertson’s martyrdom has already paved the way for the emergence of another faith-based media celebrity: former quarterback Tim Tebow, who has been hired as a college football analyst by Disney’s ESPN for college football’s SEC Network in 2014. On Monday, Jan. 6, the athlete made famous more for his prayer than for his ability will make his first appearance as an ESPN analyst. “Tim is a SEC icon with a national fan base and broad appeal,” said ESPN programming executive Justin Connolly.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a devoutly religious person being popular in the culture. What the Robertson/Tebow broadcasting victories represent is a triumph of ignorance over knowledge, humility over ability, and, in Robertson’s case, depravity over dignity. Anyone who read what Robertson said knows what I mean. It’s bad enough that a publication that once heralded the civilization of man is cashing in on an old bigot’s popularity – and Robertson’s disgusting GQ interview is another instance of the coarsening of the culture which in turn feeds the rise of the religionists – and providing a platform for condemnation of gays, alcoholics and those who have sex outside of marriage, let alone marriage of children and Robertson’s other repugnant views and we should not be surprised if the rise of the Robertsons nets new primitives getting their own shows with high ratings, followings and streams of newly disgusting commentary. Nor will those inclined to denounce such primitives find speaking out easier in the wake of the Robertsons’ rising again.

All it takes to counter the rising tide of the irrational is one voice of reason to object. Like the child in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, Edward Snowden pointed and named the reality of Big Government and gave America cause to rally for justice. His heroic example may lead to new, bold acts by radicals for a society based on reason and rights, though there will undoubtedly be new, bold acts, such as the continuing faith-based death spiral ObamaCare, by those in the opposite camp. 2013 delivered in two men powerful evidence of both.

A Brilliant Speech

Leonard Peikoff delivered a speech that changed my life 20 years ago today.

His talk was titled “Health Care is Not a Right”. I was in the audience at the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, when he delivered it. I can attest that Dr. Peikoff, his speech and the audience response were a breathtakingly brilliant exercise in objective communication. What made the speech exceptionally powerful was his mastery of the extremely difficult subject, his radical theme, understanding his audience, the context of the presentation and its stirring delivery.

I had been acquainted with the trials of working in medicine. I knew firsthand that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), created by government control through the HMO Act of 1973 by Nixon and Ted Kennedy, were ruining people’s lives and livelihoods and that – other than Ayn Rand, who had passionately argued against government-run medicine including Medicare – only one serious intellectual had made a moral case against socialized medicine. I’d read Dr. Peikoff’s ingenious “Medicine: The Death of a Profession” (1985), based on his speech at Ford Hall Forum in Boston. His explanation had opened my eyes to the spreading bureaucracy of socialized medicine and alerted me to the fact that the emerging new jargon was to be questioned, challenged and not taken lightly and that to do less was to sanction the insidious creep of dictatorship.

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, vowing to offer “health care that can never be taken away”, I knew that meant individual rights that will instantly be stripped away; the right of the doctor to practice medicine, the right of the drug company to make and sell drugs, the right of the health insurance company to assess, measure and price risk, terms and treatment – and of course the right of the patient, policyholder and individual to choose his or her own health care including whether to own a policy. I knew that medicine was, as a profession, dead or dying and I knew that President Clinton’s “health security” was a monstrous ideal. An organization started as a grass-roots effort to stop it and invited Dr. Peikoff to address its Town Hall Meeting on this date in 1993.

There were conservatives, libertarians and others among the speakers. The Red Lion’s ballroom as I recall was packed with hundreds of people from across southern California. I saw and talked to people who were truck drivers, waitresses, families, businessmen, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, doctors, nurses, housewives – all Americans uniting against the prospect – which we’d been told was imminent – of total government control of medicine. Several people spoke, some droned on. None made a moral case for capitalism. Then, Leonard Peikoff stepped to the podium.

He was electrifying. With passion, vigor and reason, like a surgeon cutting with precision, he railed against the premise of the Clinton health care plan. His argument that health care is not a right was an undeniably concise, clear case yet its thesis was framed with an unmistakable reverence for life, liberty and the founding American ideals. I was first on my feet as I rose amid the thundering applause and saw in my peripheral vision the audience rise in a kind of wave – row after row after row – while applauding in an explosion of energy I’ve not seen since. I was fixed on the face of Dr. Peikoff. He was clearly moved by the response.

I think I had known then that he was the son of a doctor, that he had once been a pre-medical student and that his brother was a doctor. I, too, had loved ones who worked in medicine. I think I appreciated how personal this issue – freedom versus slavery in medicine – must have been for the speaker. I became emotional, feeling an intense swell which comes from knowing that someone you love is under siege by those who seek to put him in chains. I thought it was just me … until I looked around. Tears were streaming from people’s faces. The feeling in the hall was not fear, pain or guilt. It wasn’t exactly anger, though a strong sense of justice had been evoked. It struck me as a response based on an overwhelming sense of justice – the feeling was an affirmation: this is good, right and just – mostly matched by a strong sense of resolve.

I was later hired to write about the Clinton health care plan for the group that sponsored Dr. Peikoff’s talk, Americans for Free Choice in Medicine (AFCM). We helped to stop the plan, which was killed before it was even proposed as legislation. It wasn’t as easy as that and the effort was an enormously fast and constant stream of disseminating facts and evaluations. Looking back 20 years later, I credit Dr. Peikoff’s “Health Care is Not a Right,” which, it must be noted, was not sponsored by any Objectivist group or anything with Ayn Rand’s – or Peikoff’s – name on it, with propelling the crusade against the Clinton health care plan. The talk’s brilliantly integrated abstractions and concretizations are logical, rational and very persuasive. It provided high-octane fuel to ignite the moral passion of those opposed to government control. It bought us time to win over men such as Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop among others, including some who later formed alliances such as the Tea Party-oriented Freedom Works and it allowed groups such as the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) to spread Objectivism.

It is impossible to convey the sense of doom that hung over the country’s medical profession during those days. The Clinton health care plan was inevitable, we were incessantly told. And many believed it. The most ardent believers were on the right. Only one man stepped forward first to declare that the notion that health care is a right is a moral abomination. He did it 20 years ago today. That we as a movement can even conceive of calling the nation’s 3-year-old dictate ObamaCare – which at once names the dictator and mocks his dishonesty – and steadfastly fight for its repeal is possible thanks to Leonard Peikoff.

It is true that we’re losing the battle for freedom. ObamaCare is law. Today, Republicans compromised again in favor of the welfare state. One of the chief Republican welfare-statists, a smooth-talking, mealy-mouthed conservative congressman from Georgia named Tom Price, went on Fox News today and answered, after evading Charles Krauthammer’s question whether health care is a right, that conservatives hold that the government has a moral obligation to provide health care to all. That the question is even asked – in a forum on Fox News Channel, which didn’t exist 20 years ago – owes to the power of a rational philosophy. We should be grateful to Leonard Peikoff for interpreting, advancing and acting on it. We should finish what he started.

The Ethics of War with Syria

America is not the world’s police and it ought to be unnecessary to have to declare let alone debate that an attack by the U.S. on Syria would be an outrage.

But the Obama administration, backed by every major Democrat and Republican and largely by the press, too, is on the verge of taking the U.S. to war with Syria. It’s bad enough that Obama is proposing to align with rebels that by credible accounts are allied with the Islamic terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and it is monstrous to subject this nation – having already been subjected to the longest war in our history – to another war with no purpose other than helping others. But the U.S. government has, to my knowledge for the first time, explicitly rejected U.S. self-interest as the cause for initiating the use of force against another country. Obama’s stated purpose for going to war is pure altruism – the morality of helping others for the sake of helping others – to the exclusion of self-interest and the fact that both sides of Syria’s civil war are jihadists for Islam. The altruism is the point, its proponents agree.

This war, currently being debated by Congress, is a crucially climactic, possibly ultimate, test in our lifetimes between the ethics of egoism and the ethics of altruism or between good and evil. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is right that the United States is “not Al Qaeda’s air force” when he argues that we should not go to war with Syria. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is right to declare as he did in Time that he refuses to “vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory.” But these are deeply flawed Christian politicians who can go bad – and, on crucial issues, they have – because they have no moral defense for acting in our own self-interest. A nation hurling itself into war in solidarity with victims of chemical weapons won’t be stopped on practical, even Constitutional, grounds.

The ethics of self-sacrifice must be challenged, rejected and replaced with the ethics of self-interest, which ought to be our sole criteria for foreign intervention, as the Founding Fathers, who warned against foreign entanglements, understood.

The opponents and proponents of war with Syria are proving philosopher Onkar Ghate right that the fundamental political conflict of our time is not between left and right. The conflict is between the rational and the irrational, between reason vs. faith, with leftists and conservatives converging into a single, dangerous pre-dictatorship based on faith in the state – the NSA, TSA, ObamaCare, anything dictated by government – with Obama, McCain and Fox News leading us into submission. President Obama, a pure nihilist whom I’ve called the Nothing Man, openly expresses disdain and outright contempt for having to communicate anything about the issue of going to war with anyone for any reason. He embodies the nil, the nothing, in this sense; a kind of walking (or in his case loping) Grim Reaper.

Two years ago, I had a long discussion about war with John Lewis months before he died. I had studied under his instruction in war history and read his book, Nothing Less Than Victory, and Dr. Lewis was the best war historian I knew. We talked about 9/11, the jihad, Syria as a flashpoint, the prospect of Obama as a warmonger and the people treating someone like Obama as a deity in total faith. He warned against all-out world war born of our refusal to identify, name, confront, kill and wipe out Islamic jihad.

Attacking Syria brings America closer to total, nonstop world war and destruction of western civilization. Some Americans, including war veterans and other individualists, are awakened and emboldened by Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s efforts and Edward Snowden’s heroic whistleblowing and they reject the emerging government-controlled society by speaking up against war with Syria. In ethical terms, the debate over Syria separates the selfish from the selfless. The question demanding to be answered right now is: which one are you?