The Enemy on Campus?

Boston College declines to publish video of a debate between the author Dinesh D'Souza and the scholar Alan Wolfe. Censorship or editorial judgment?
August 28, 2007
 

Dinesh D'Souza has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since he started writing for The Dartmouth Review, the first modern conservative student newspaper, in the early 1980s. His latest book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, set a new standard even for him, igniting a firestorm of criticism across the political spectrum when it was published in January. Now, D'Souza says Boston College is withholding videotape of a debate on the book he conducted there with the scholar Alan Wolfe -- because it shows that the college's "intellectual emperor has no clothes."

Elaborating on Fox News's Hannity & Colmes on Friday and on his AOL blog early Monday morning, D'Souza, the Robert and Karen Rishwain Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said that Wolfe had failed to answer basic questions about Islam and democracy during the debate, and that he believed the professor and the college were "colluding" to keep the spectacle out of the hands of the public. The debate was held on April 18, but the college didn't inform the event's organizers that the video would not be published on the college's multimedia portal, Front Row, until last week.

But the producers of the video maintain that it was an embarrassment for both debaters. "It was uncivil, they talked over each other, they ... cast aspersions on each other’s character, they made jokes at each other’s expense, it was a snipe job, it was a street fight, it was a brawl. And frankly it doesn’t meet Boston College’s intellectual standards," said Ben Birnbaum, the executive producer of Front Row. While it was clear that the taping was intended for an online audience, the written agreement with the debaters left the decision on what to do with the video in the college's hands.

Since no record of the debate is publicly available, a reconstruction of what exactly happened requires relying on recollections that sometimes appear to contradict each other. An example mentioned in D'Souza's blog highlights the misunderstandings that may have occurred as the debate went on. During five-minute "cross-examination" sessions in which the participants could grill each other directly, D'Souza wrote, "I asked Wolfe a series of simple questions about the Muslim world. What percentage of Muslims around the globe live in a democracy? He had no idea. Which is the largest Muslim country in the world? He answered, 'India,' which is not a Muslim country at all."

Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, conceded that the answer "India" was wrong. "Should I have answered the question correctly? Yes," he said. But "I just assumed that he was trying to trick me in some way. I was trying to be doubly smart." Then D'Souza asked him if he knew the second-largest Muslim country, to which Wolfe repeated, in D'Souza's account, "India?" But Wolfe pointed out that D'Souza's answer, Bangladesh, was also wrong. The second most populous Muslim country (to Indonesia) is Pakistan.

What he was referring to, but which may not have been clear during the debate, was the second-largest Muslim democracy, D'Souza clarified in an interview. But, he insisted, Wolfe had "no idea either way." Wolfe likened the questions to asking "what's the capital of the United States?" -- so basic that "I outsmarted myself," he said.

"It wasn’t my proudest hour, you can quote me on that."

D'Souza said on his blog that this and other episodes during the debate led Wolfe and Front Row to work together to withhold the video from the public, a claim that both parties vigorously deny. Now D'Souza is calling it censorship, Wolfe has deferred to Front Row and the college said it has the right not to publish content that doesn't meet its standards.

An Invitation to Speak

It all started with D'Souza's new book, an avowedly controversial take on a volatile topic. Rather than place the blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks on more traditional targets, such as U.S. foreign policy or a corrosive strain of Islam, D'Souza argues that they were blowback in response to a different kind of perceived threat: socially liberal Americans, or the "cultural left." The book asserts that radical Islam is, at least in part, a reaction against a worldwide crusade by American secular progressives to spread cultural permissiveness abroad.

That thesis led not only to predictable condemnations from the left, but a near-unanimous shunning from the right as well. One of the most prominent attacks on D'Souza's book was published in The New York Times Book Review, and its author was Wolfe, who wrote, "I never thought a book by D’Souza, the aging enfant terrible of American conservatism, would, like the Stalinist apologetics of the popular front period, contain such a soft spot for radical evil." (D'Souza, on his blog, called the piece a "hit job.")

So when Bradley Easterbrooks, the vice president of the College Republicans and a senior at Boston College at the time, invited D'Souza to speak on campus, he agreed -- and suggested they invite Wolfe as well. "It was [D'Souza's] idea, and I think it was a good idea," Wolfe said. Easterbrooks coordinated with the College Democrats, and the college itself provided support in funding and publicity. To pave the way for Front Row to tape the event, both Wolfe and D'Souza signed forms ceding the intellectual property of the video to the college, which would allow but not require it to post the content online. "Nothing prevented them from taping this themselves," Birnbaum said.

By most accounts, the debate was heated and contentious. At 36 points during the 54-page transcript of the debate, Birnbaum said, the transcriber wrote: "overlapping conversations, inaudible." Normally, he said, he'd only see about five such instances in the 600 or so pages of transcripts he reviews each year. "I don’t think it was a good example of how to debate the merits of an idea," he said. (He wouldn't release the transcript of the debate.)

"There was too much shouting. It didn’t really serve any academic purpose," Wolfe said. "It degenerated into a lot of name calling, and I didn’t find it a very pleasant experience. I didn’t come out of it too elevated. I’m sure that, speaking to people in the audience afterwards, they didn’t come out feeling particularly elevated either. It was an opportunity to discuss some pretty important issues, but it never reached the level [of] an Oxford debate."

Calling it "feisty," D'Souza put it this way: "The debate actually was civil; it was only uncivil in the sense that [Wolfe] would make outrageous allegations and he couldn’t back them up."

Differing Accounts

As in any good brawl, the first question is always: Who started it?

Wolfe said that both he and D'Souza were culpable for the tone of the debate, but "I wouldn’t say 50-50; I’d still put more of the blame on him because of his debating style, which is really designed to provoke you." He said D'Souza started out by calling him a liar.

D'Souza came into the debate already having taken issue with Wolfe's review, which he said mischaracterized a chapter of his book that was intended to view America "through Muslim eyes" but that Wolfe "artfully manipulates those quotations" to make them look like his own views. "All my work is very patriotic and pro-American," D'Souza said, comparing his thesis to asking whether European appeasement sowed the seeds of World War II.

Seeming to savor the unique opportunity the debate afforded, D'Souza pointed out, "An author normally does not have the chance to confront a critic."

And he did. The back and forth that ensued, according to the varying accounts, appeared to produce no clear winners or illuminate the issues that each had been invited to discuss. "I’m not claiming that I won the debate, all I’m saying is that the debate was very revealing" about Wolfe and other scholars, D'Souza said, who use "hit job" tactics, then "run for cover."

Meanwhile, Easterbrooks, who doesn't agree with D'Souza's thesis, said he thinks the college has an obligation to release the footage. "Their mission should be allowing their students to decide and think critically," he said. For his part, Birnbaum said it's not about censorship. "This has nothing to do with who bested whom in the debate; I could care less. Alan Wolfe could have wiped the floor with Dinesh D'Souza and I wouldn’t have posted it." The archive at Front Row features debates from speakers across the political spectrum, he added.

Birnbaum recounted a moment toward the end of the debate that he said summed up his feelings about it. A student went to one of the floor microphones and said: "Just as a student, I feel that your bickering here is a great disservice to us, because I came here to learn something, and I didn’t really learn anything."

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