November 15, 2018

Hallowed ground

In the student lounge behind the North Campus cafeteria at UCLA, the Romanian woman with frosted hair and one too many boyfriends smoked red Marlboros and spun tall tales about how her mother had walked, barefoot and pregnant, across a frozen continent and away from Nicolae Ceausescu’s killers to freedom in America. The handsome history major on a soccer scholarship from England pined after the petite Iranian girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. The older American man, bald and broke and happy about it, boasted about his beat-up convertible with the peeling leather seats and cracked windows and announced, “It’s a convertible day” every time the sun was out.

The rest of us sat there, in between classes and late at night, on weekends, over Christmas and Easter breaks. We ate red apples we bought for 50 cents, drank coffee with a splash of hot chocolate in large Styrofoam cups, studied till our eyes nearly bled or we fell asleep on our books or someone announced it was time for a break. To the science and math and engineering majors in South Campus, we were the slacker bunch. We talked too much and took too many breaks and congratulated ourselves for getting an A in a class with only 80 students, and, half the time, the teacher didn’t even grade on a curve. To the art and film and theater majors in north North Campus, we were the Neiman Marxists who did time in philosophy or English or political science while we waited to get married or to go to law school. 

The others built and made things; we, the North Campus crowd, studied and memorized and debated ideas. It was as impractical an occupation as you could engage in, virtually useless for getting a job after college, and yet — and therefore — more serious and significant, more heady and exhilarating than anything I’ve done before or since. 

You can’t know the importance of it — of trading in ideas, having the space and opportunity to ponder and develop them, being able to thrash them out openly — unless you’ve lived the alternative. On the first day of kindergarten in Iran, our parents warned us never to utter the words “shah,” “royal family,” “his or her majesty” in any context except the national anthem and the sorood-eh shahanshahi — “Ode to the Shah.” They warned again throughout the school year and at the start of every new academic year, adding new words — “communism,” “Marxism,” “totalitarianism,” “Zionism” — every time. The older we got, the longer the list became. 

Not that we even knew the meaning of any of these words. If they were taught at all, mentioned in any book, their definition would be fabricated by the censors in the ministry of interior, their origins, like so much of the history we were taught, manufactured to glorify the existing regime. But in a place where teachers and students spied on each other, cab drivers were paid to eavesdrop on their fares, and secret police operatives pulled people out of bed or off the sidewalk into a car never to be seen again — in a place where ideas were feared and prohibited, their importance recognized, the mere mention of one or another could easily buy a person or her parents a long and eventful stay at an undisclosed, underground location. 

It still can, and does — cost people their freedom or their life. More often than not, the fight begins on university campuses and spreads outward, or is crushed by some dictator or other along with the students who waged it. I don’t know about the rest of the North Campus crowd, but I, for one, was mindful of this — that a university can be the cradle of, or the burial ground for, individual liberty — every day of every year I spent at UCLA. To be in the company of great minds and a pupil to noted scholars was, for me, a prayer answered. To have a right to an opinion and the privilege to express it, to have access to all those books, all those dissertations and studies, was a gift I cherish to this day. Not that we all agreed with each other all the time; far from it. On every corner of the campus on any given day, you would run into some student group demonstrating for or against a cause. Conservatives were always complaining that the faculty was too liberal, too politically correct and cowardly. Liberals picketed professors’ classrooms for being “reactionary.” 

But that’s just it — the splendor of the place: Here, ideas mattered; learning was an end in and of itself; and no one — no student or professor or group and organization — was allowed to coerce or persecute anyone else. 

I say “was allowed to” because there were then, as there are now, many a small-time dictator tramping about campus and its environs, trying to scream louder than anyone else, deny others the very freedom that made it possible, and safe, for them to speak. Only they didn’t succeed, because the rules did not allow it and the rules were enforced — by other students, the professors and, most important, the administration. 

This is what has made UCLA, like all great universities, hallowed ground for all the generations of students whose personalities and future were shaped by it. It’s what is at stake now, on UC campuses and elsewhere in this country’s great academic institutions where the line between freedom to express one’s beliefs and permission to force others into silence or compliance is becoming blurred. 

I’m speaking, of course, of the disgraceful “pledge” campaign at UCLA, and of the administration’s initial response, to “leave the matter to be resolved by students,” and of the subsequent claim that they were “troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion.” I would not expect, or wish, that the anti-Israeli students’ First Amendment right to free speech be infringed upon. The university is as much a custodian of those students’ liberty as it is the others’. But when those others’ right of free speech is being threatened or trampled, when undergraduates with a wish to participate in student government are cowed into signing pledges not to visit Israel on trips sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League or the Hasbara Fellowships, then I believe the university has a duty to do more than be “troubled.” 

I would be “troubled” if some student groups had the idea of the pledge and thought they could enforce it. I would be indignant if they circulated their pledge and asked candidates to sign it. But if they managed, as these students have, to get 17 out of approximately 30 candidates to sign, thereby influencing the result of the election — in that case, I would be seriously, deeply alarmed. 

Because this is another thing you can’t appreciate — fully — unless you’ve lived the alternative: how easily a nation will be robbed of its freedoms unless it remains vigilant; how long and bloody the battle would be to regain those freedoms.