The Rise and Fall of Claudine Gay
The leaders of American institutions no longer seem able to articulate actual principles.
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need to care about Harvard President Claudine Gay. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. She is now the subject of considerable controversy, with mounting calls for her to resign after a subpar showing at a Republican-led congressional hearing last week. Her critics allege that she failed to take a strong enough stand against calls for genocide against Jews on campus, among other things.
I’m angry at Claudine Gay too, but for somewhat different reasons. Gay is a technocrat, and it shows in the bloodless, clinical responses she offered to her interrogators. She was condescending and evasive, punctuating her remarks with knowing smirks. She seemed to be reading off a page of carefully parsed legalese prepared by advisors and lawyers who care only about protecting themselves from liability. That’s the problem: When you prioritize self-preservation above all else, it pleases no one. If you try so hard to split the middle, you’ll have diluted any sign of genuine conviction or commitment.
This is why technocrats almost always fail in the messiness of real-life politics. To survive in in political combat, you need defenders. And to have defenders, you need to have at least the appearance of principles, even if they’re the “wrong” ones. (And, of course, in a divided society where there’s no preexisting consensus around what constitutes a common good, there’s no a priori way to determine whether wrong principles are, in fact, wrong).
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It’s a cliché, but it’s called the courage of your convictions for a reason. Gay did not have them. In an exchange from the hearing that went viral, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) zeroed in on students’ use of the word “intifada” as tantamount to a call for genocide. This is absurd on its face, and I feel silly even addressing it here. Unfortunately, Gay did not challenge the premise of Stefanik’s question, because that would have required standing up for something. As I argue in my latest Washington Post column [free link], intifada means “uprising” or “rebellion” in Arabic, and it came into popular usage during the first Palestinian intifada, a popular, largely nonviolent uprising. (Very few, if any, uprisings anywhere have been completely nonviolent. To insist on such a standard is to ask for a kind of perfection from victims that we would never demand from those who hold the power to victimize).
Dr. Gay had the perfect opportunity to challenge the premise of not just Rep. Stefanik’s question but of an entire worldview that equates pro-Palestinian speech with both terrorism and antisemitism. That would have been a teaching moment, as they say.
But instead we have fake controversies that strengthen the hand of those—like Rep. Stefanik—who have no principled commitment to free speech, but only to speech that aligns with their own side. For them, it is about power, dominance, and imposition. (Decades ago, the iconoclast Nat Hentoff wrote a book whose title just about summed it up—Free Speech for Me, But Not For Thee).
In an ideal world, or at least my ideal world, Dr. Gay wouldn’t have been Harvard’s president in the first place. But we don’t live in that world either. While she doesn’t deserve to hold such a leadership position, to fire her now would be to set a dangerous precedent—that elected officials can bully college leaders to resign for relatively silly reasons. For Gay to resign now would worsen and exacerbate growing fears around “cancel culture,” which is now making a comeback, this time from the right against the left.
But, after the dust settles, it’s worth pondering more fundamental questions of what we value in the leaders of our institutions, even if, in this case, Harvard is anything but ours.
In all of ink spilled on the hearing—and the related issues around free speech and cancel culture—we still have no real idea what Dr. Gay actually believes. Which is remarkable when you think about it. After the backlash against her comments, Gay apologized, but she managed to say yet more things without saying anything at all. She played into the idea, popularized during and after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, that words could cause a certain kind of psychic damage to those who hear them—and who was to say that this pain was qualitatively different than the pain caused by actual violence?
But words are not violence. Violence is violence.
This is what she said.
I am sorry. When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.
This is the language of therapy. It should have as little place as possible in public debate and politics. Don’t be sorry. Tell us what you really believe, if you believe anything at all.
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