About a week ago, an art exhibition in celebration of Black History Month was vandalized, presumably by one or more students here at Bard College.
This ugly and depressingly familiar spectacle precipitated a familiar ritual as administrators and faculty competed with each other in directing the full force of their gravitas towards this outrage against civility, this deplorable assault on sacrosanct values of our academic community, calling for swift and severe justice to be meted out to the perpetrators.
At most campuses, similar denunciations, while typically overblown, might be viewed as having some claim to the moral high ground.
Unfortunately, here at Bard what elsewhere appears as righteous indignation has come off as off key and unattractively shrill.
This is because of the shadow cast by a single member of the Bard Community, Bard Board of Trustees member, Martin Peretz.
While Peretz is rarely seen on campus his influence seems increasingly evident, as the political orientation of the faculty has shifted markedly to the right, exchange programs with its Hudson Valley neighbor West Point are expanded, and the last remnants of Bard’s storied radical traditions are wrung out of its institutional fabric.
And indeed this most recent episode should also been seen as consistent with Bard falling under Peretz’s influence. For it is of a piece with a central component of Peretz’s political philosophy: his enthusiastic embrace of a hardline strain of Zionism which doesn’t just flirt with racism but actively endorses it.
The full flowering of these commitments would be advertised in a blog entry posted some months ago where Peretz’s designated untermenschen, the Arabs, are deemed “unworthy of the privileges of the First Amendment.” For them, according to Peretz, “life is cheap”, recycling the dehumanizing characterization directed at despised, subject populations for centuries.
This would appear just as the Martin Peretz Chair of Yiddish Studies at Harvard was announced with the result that what would have otherwise been a celebration became a much deserved public shaming. Peretz’s promenade through Harvard Yard would be flanked by phalanxes of students carrying placards silently confronting Peretz with his most extravagantly vile outbursts from over many years.
Students at Peretz’s alma mater Brandeis reacted to this display of hate speech with a petition to revoke Peretz’s honorary degree.
Even mainstream commentators such as Nicholas Kristof and James Fallows expressed shock and dismay.
And so one might have expected at least a few members of the faculty at “the most liberal of the liberal arts colleges” to go on record with expressions of concern. Indeed, one might have expected the student members of the Bard Anti Racist Discourse, whose exhibit would later be the target of racist attacks, to have protested a key figure overseeing Bard’s academic development engaging in hate speech.
Unfortunately, all that Bard was able to muster was a resounding silence.
And so Martin Niemoller’s time tested adage was to be validated yet again.
Having failed to repudiate racism when it trickled down from above, Bard’s faculty and administration have no moral standing or practical authority to combat it when it bubbles up from below.
And the perpetrators themselves, should they be caught and require a defense, can easily point to the best known member of it’s own board as a model for their own exercise of hate speech.
The double standard is on parade for all to see.
Those who courted legitimacy and funding by playing Peretz’s game have now seen the strategy blow up in their faces.
Bard can pull the plug on Peretz or expect the ugliness of last week to return frequently and with ever more virulence.
And if it fails to do so, Bard only has itself to blame.