Celebrity activist Linda Sarsour should not have been invited to give the commencement address at the City University School of Public Health. Whoever first came up with that idea, and whatever board approved it, made a tremendous, offensive misstep that has done a disservice to actual progressive activism (rather than Ms. Sarsour’s self-referential brand).
Let me be clear, before inappropriate comparisons are made in defense of her speaking: This is not the same as firebrands’ being invited to college campuses by sympathetic student groups in order to provoke debate, nor is the issue one of regulating free speech. As an attorney—in fact a graduate of the same City University system’s law school—and a publisher, I wholeheartedly support the rights and protections afforded to and by free speech. The more uncomfortable and confrontational the argument, whether in reporting, art, activism, literature or politics, the better. Free speech doesn’t need permission.
The issue of Linda Sarsour as a CUNY commencement speaker is about the decision of a government actor—in this case, a creature of city and state government—to provide an official platform for a voice that discredits other activists who disagree with her ideological litmus tests, a voice allied with anti-Israel violence, a voice committed to actions abhorrent to large parts of New York City’s diverse population, a voice seemingly interested more in self-promotion than in stirring truly open debate.
This isn’t about free speech; it’s about CUNY’s promoting a message. This is about the public officials who have been slow to respond to calls for their thoughts on CUNY’s invitation to Ms. Sarsour, including calls from this paper. This is about those who feel forced to defend her, speaking out of concern about their own standing in a Democratic party resistant to learn the lessons of President Trump’s election.
This is about the dangers of intersectionality, the connecting of activism focused on different issues, taken too far. This is about censorship in the form of political correctness among protesters.
Ms. Sarsour states that Zionists cannot be feminists, as the struggles of Palestinian women are the concerns of all proper feminists. “Anyone who wants to call themselves an activist cannot be selective,” she said in an interview. I completely disagree.
By insisting that activism must connect with all efforts against systems of inequity everywhere, Ms. Sarsour is placing herself, and those who agree with her brand of professional worldwide protest, as the judges of who is “pure” enough to speak out on issues. This sort of intentionally divisive intellectual bullying should not be peddled as CUNY-supported rhetoric.
Of course there is much to protest. America is split, the Trump-Clinton election evidence of deep divisions. Our foreign-policy misadventures, started under President George W. Bush and heightened in some cases by President Obama, have produced massive upheaval worldwide. Domestic policy—whether tax or healthcare or environmental or social services—is obviously a scattershot mess of poorly-thought-out giveaways. Women’s health and privacy are particularly at risk. Communities must organize to protect these vital rights. Now is not the time to disqualify those who, following Ms. Sarsour’s thinking, support Israel and Planned Parenthood.
Though she was co-chair of the successful Women’s March on Washington, Ms. Sarsour should not be given a pass on earlier venom, nor should she be encouraged in recent offenses.
Protesting Trump is not a disinfectant.
Her false outrage over being held accountable for hateful statements and actions is undercut by her own media-savvy moves to promote those same actions and beliefs, an effort CUNY should not be a part of.
Remember this also: At the height of the protest movement against the war in Vietnam, with college campuses and cities roiled in violence against the White House, President Nixon overwhelmingly won re-election. America, and New York, is more than its cities and protests. Linda Sarsour does not speak for everyone, and certainly not for New York’s diverse, organized and active Jewish communities.
Those who invited Ms. Sarsour to give a CUNY commencement address, those defending that decision and those failing to speak out against it mischaracterize what this controversy is really about, and misunderstand the political risks they’re taking. Whatever short-term benefit her New York Democratic defenders—those speaking up for her and those complicit through their silence—may get in left-leaning primary elections, the wider electorate they eventually face in a November general election will have the final say.