Peretz and the Power of Shaming

(Update, with video, at the end.) Today the Social Studies program at Harvard will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and at noon Martin Peretz of the New Republic will (as noted here) be recognized, along with other past head tutors in the program. A fellowship fund raised by former students in his honor -- originally $500,000, which swelled to $650,000 from supporters during the controversy over Peretz's infamous "Muslim life is cheap" column -- will be accepted and launched. A simultaneous protest is planned.

I was among those on Peretz's back for the bigotry of his comments, so let me explain why I think this outcome is OK.

1) Money: It was never likely that Harvard would turn down this scholarship fund, which was raised by Peretz's students in honor of his role (by all accounts excellent and devoted) as teacher and mentor. I haven't gone back to do the research, but I am 100% sure that through the centuries Harvard -- like Yale and Oxford and the church next door and every other dependent-on-donations place -- has happily accepted money under far shadier auspices. Yes, there are contributions so toxic that you can't touch them. And, yes, institutions can get into self-justifying trouble by telling themselves, "I'll do so much good with this money, it doesn't matter that it's from Idi Amin!" But this doesn't seem to me such a case.

Matthew Yglesias has argued strongly that people shouldn't give money to rich private universities in any circumstances, since the money will make a much bigger difference at a cash-poor public college. OK. But in reality, Peretz's friends and proteges were not going to give that $650,000 for fellowships at Cal State San Bernardino. Harvard can presumably put the fellowship to some beneficial use -- and, as I've suggested several times earlier, if they're queasy about Peretz's anti-Muslim diatribes, they could use the occasion to raise more money for new scholarship favoring Muslims.

2) Speech. It should never have been anyone's goal to keep Martin Peretz from speaking, at this ceremony or any other time. As the homily goes, the cure for bad speech is more speech. For a Harvard student argument to the same effect, see here.

Being honored at a ceremony as the featured speaker -- that is something different. Which brings us to:

3) Shaming, and boundary-drawing. No matter what anyone says at the Harvard observances today, Martin Peretz has been undeniably shamed. And lastingly shamed, unless he sets about building a new reputation. A month ago, he was an editor-in-chief who had many devoted proteges, some persistent critics (to name two, Matt Duss and Eric Alterman, plus this), but a general position of respectability. Now the reaction to his writings is such that even the president of Harvard had to hold him at arm's length in saying that she still would accept the scholarship money; and he has been criticized eloquently in his own magazine (by Todd Gitlin: "The life of the mind is not the life of the spleen") and, inter alia, in the Tablet (by Marc Tracy: "This is not the first time he has written something racist, and it isn't the fifteenth time, either").

Peretz -- and everyone else -- must know that if his legacy were to be settled as of today, it would be mixed at best. Beloved by many students and respected by some magazine colleagues, but broadly considered in his 70s to be a bigot. It's certainly in his power to change that, in applying in future writing the spirit of his Yom Kippur "Atonement" for wrongs done to "our Muslim brothers and sisters." But the real point is one that the Economist's "Democracy in America" columnist noted: the controversy had helped clarify what is decent, and indecent, in public discourse, for people who want to be seen as more than mere tribal-loyalists and haters. (In reading back through Peretz's comments of the past two decades, I am struck by how angry most of them sound.) The Economist said that the controversy over "honoring" Peretz was "exactly the sort of conflict that helps to delineate the boundaries of acceptable discourse in America. In this sense the whole incident might be seen as encouraging."

So, happy 50th birthday to the Social Studies program, and let us take the proper encouragement from the episode.
UPDATE: Video from the protests today here. Eg:


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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