Harvard University’s English department invited Oxford poet Tom Paulin to deliver “The Morris Gray Lecture” on Nov. 14. Then, after pressure from Zionists at the National Review and Wall Street Journal, who objected to Paulin’s comments in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly to the effect that settlers in the West Bank should be “shot dead”, the invitation was withdrawn.
Harvard University’s English department’s faculty members include Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.
Reading about all that got me reminiscing.
When I was at Oxford, I had lunch with Paulin at Hertford College, after having a drink with him in his rooms. He struck me then, as I know he struck many of his undergraduate tutorial students who were my friends at the time, as a second-rater and a phony; something that didn’t exactly surprise me since I had frequently watched his appearances on a BBC arts program, The Late Show, in which he proved himself a master of the sound bite over the detailed and thoughtful argument.
He didn’t much take to me either, just for the record; but a few weeks later, when I bumped into him in a coffee shop on High Street, he introduced me to Seamus Heaney, a great friend of his who was visiting town — and someone whose hand I was actually proud to shake.
What critics of Harvard University’s English faculty have not realized is that it was almost certainly Heaney himself who invited Paulin to give the lecture. That’s how things work in the world of Western academia: Friends invite friends to lecture at their universities and review one another’s books and promote one another’s reputations and generally work to further one another’s careers. It is a horribly incestuous world that makes the Arab word “wasta” (meaning “string pulling” or “influence”) seem as if it might have been borrowed from the English language.
Paulin had told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview that what he described as “Brooklyn-born” Jewish settlers should be “shot dead.” He said: “They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them,” adding: “I can understand how suicide bombers feel.... I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale.”
This is repulsive on a number of levels.
Firstly, it is simply immoral. To advocate the death of Israeli civilians — or any human being — is not only wrong under all circumstances, but also in this instance stoops to the level of extremist Zionists who talk of wiping Palestinians off the face of the Earth. It is one thing to argue that Palestinians who undertake suicide attacks are driven to do so because of the terrible oppression they suffer. It is quite another to say that suicide attacks are a legitimate, and God forbid even preferable, course of action.
On the political level such comments give ammunition to the extremist elements of the Zionist lobby who argue that all criticism of Israelis amounts to anti-Semitism, although in this case Paulin’s comments were first and foremost anti-humanity.
On the practical level it is yet another example of Paulin playing to the audience — this time Egyptian intellectuals who read Al-Ahram Weekly — by giving a quotable sentence instead of a detailed argument.
In Britain, which champions free speech, to advocate the death of anyone is a crime, and rightly so. Paulin should be prosecuted accordingly. In the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the constitution, the limit is generally agreed to be crying “fire” in a crowded theater.
Harvard University was wrong to have invited Tom Paulin to give such a prestigious lecture, and was right to have withdrawn the invitation.
My enemy’s enemy is not always my friend.
By refusing Paulin a platform, Harvard has achieved two positive results. It has set a precedent, which should also apply to Arab haters. And it has, incidentally, smashed a little cell of the Western academic mafia.