Section: Opinion

Bret Stephens’ visit to campus normalizes hateful rhetoric

Over the past two weeks, the Kenyon community has been disturbed by the blatant discrimination toward Muslims by the Trump administration. Constitutionally, the Muslim ban could not be presented as such, and is thinly veiled by targeting nationality rather than faith.  Using anti-nationalism as a stand-in for Islamophobia or blatant racism is not a new phenomenon, and one of the most pertinent examples is that of Palestine. While most liberal college students will not openly attack Muslims or people of Middle Eastern origin, many still attack Palestinians specifically, and call it political realism rather than racism. We hear these sentiments from U.S. politicians, military leaders and even lauded journalists, one of whom spoke at Kenyon about “The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy.”

On Feb. 8, the Kenyon Israel Club and the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) co-sponsored a talk by Bret Stephens.  Stephens writes for the Wall Street Journal’s foreign-affairs column, and has contributed to many other print publications.  My intent is not to question the journalistic credentials of Stephens, but rather to reflect on our current state: where one’s voice is empowered by major news networks (and small liberal arts colleges) despite frequent hate speech against Palestinians and their supporters. 

An incessant critic of the Obama administration, Stephens also reprimands Trump’s rhetoric and policies, including the aforementioned travel ban. During the talk, he showed sympathy for potential immigrants from Mexico and those blocked by the ban, condemning the way in which Trump has degraded them both. For anyone who previously researched Stephens, the irony was unbearable considering his long paper trail of degrading Arabs, while diagnosing the “Arab mindset” that he believes has prevented the intellectual development of an entire region. 

In October of 2015, Stephens wrote an article for his WSJ column entitled “Palestine: The Psychotic Stage,” in which he claimed to unfold “the truth about why Palestinians have been seized by their present blood lust.” Stephens goes on to list violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis, which he sees as part of a “communal psychosis.” He goes as far as to say that performing this violence is a “moral fulfillment” for Palestinians, and that to call them anything less than evil is to be “an apologist, and an accomplice.”  Stephens performs a few rhetorical tricks here in an effort to disguise prejudice as valid political analysis. In a state of omission but not ignorance, he strips Palestinians of their history. There is no mention of al-Nakba — the violent of expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 — or refugees, home demolition or the imprisonment and torture of Palestinian children. When he mentions Al-Aqsa Mosque, it is not as one of the holiest sites in Islam but as a breeding ground for hate and violence.

Stephens makes the same point that Trump and his surrogates have made about “the Muslims” that they vilify: They are not human and therefore cannot be understood or treated as such. As disturbing as it is, the language Stephens uses is sadly familiar; it echoes the rhetoric of fascist regimes, the justifications made by colonizers and segregators. I am not saying that Stephens should have been disqualified from speaking. Rather, as a student I find it disappointing that during this traumatic time in our nation and for many in our community, CSAD and the Kenyon Israel Club chose to sponsor someone who espouses hate speech, without any transparency about the radicalism he subscribes to. After listening to the jokes and jabs that Stephens made, perhaps audience members felt they were witnessing a reaction to our current political climate, one in which prejudice is mainstream and facts are for liberals. However, Stephens’ work is not a reaction to the problem, but instead one of the many causes. 

Megan Carr ’18 is a history and Asian studies major from Cocoa Beach, Fla. Contact her at carrm@kenyon.edu.

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