The issue is responsibility

James O. Freedman

October 18, 1990|By James O. Freedman

AS THE president of a liberal arts institution, I believe the robust discussion of ideas is essential to the pursuit of truth and the intellectual and moral growth of America's future leaders.

There is a time in such debates when one is compelled to say, with word and deed, "This is who I am, this is what I stand for." Recent events at Dartmouth College and the ensuing uproar make this one of those times for me.

For the past 10 years the Dartmouth Review -- an off-campus newspaper unassociated with Dartmouth College -- has attracted national attention by its brazen attacks on blacks, women, homosexuals, Native Americans and Jews.

The most recent act of bigotry occurred on Yom Kippur, when the review published in its credo a quotation from Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf": "I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator: By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord's work."

The review's explanation for this egregious anti-Semitism is sabotage. This explanation is hardly credible and it also misses the point.

The review's entire history reflects a pattern of bigotry and intolerance -- often carefully timed. In 1980 it sponsored a champagne-and-lobster brunch on the day of an Oxfam fast intended to draw attention to world hunger.

In 1986, on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., 10 members of the review staff used sledgehammers to tear down shanties that had been erected on the college green to protest apartheid.

In 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the review ran a cartoon caricature of me wearing a Nazi uniform and with a Hitler mustache. The previous week it had run a lengthy piece titled "Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Friedmann," alluding to the Nazi slogan, "One Empire, One People, One Leader."

In 1982 the review printed a column in so-called "black English," titled "Dis Sho Ain't No Jive, Bro," implying black students are illiterate. Last July the publication described as "equally tragic" the deaths of 1,400 Moslem pilgrims in Mecca and 7,000 penguins in Australia -- and in a succeeding edition offered "a LTC heartfelt apology" to "all the penguins of the world."

Given this history, the issue isn't sabotage but responsibility.

Even the tone of the review's initial apology echoed the language of Nazi diatribes; it was perhaps as offensive as the Hitler quotation itself. The editors said they did not check the credo (usually a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt) before the paper went to press because they regarded it, "like the stones given to Moses on which the Laws were written by God, [as] almost immutable."

The letter asserts the "human filth" responsible for the "offensive offal," the "cancer amongst our ranks, we assure you, will be sought out and thoroughly punished." It concludes, "We are contrite of heart, but even more so we seek vengeance."

My quarrel is not so much with the handful of undergraduates who write for the review as it is with those outsiders -- including Patrick Buchanan, William F. Buckley Jr., George Gilder and William Rusher -- who continue to support it. Some of its most prominent backers excuse the paper's shameful prejudices as sophomoric excess and reward its editors with glittering jobs in politics, journalism and business.

The review receives enormous financial support from conservative patrons -- more than $800,000 in the last three years alone, according to its tax returns. In the past decade the John M. Olin Foundation of New York, headed by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, has contributed $295,000. Those are heady sums from respectable adults who ought to know better.

Conservative voices belong on campus. Dartmouth would be enriched by any number of conservative papers in the tradition of Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold and Alexander Bickel.

The review is none of these, nor is it a responsible voice of conservative opinion. Rather, it is an instrument of attempted intimidation, attacking those principles of discourse and community that permit an academic institution to flourish. At the heart of these principles are civility, responsibility, honesty and respect for others.

James O. Freedman is president of Dartmouth College.

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