by Peter Maass
The Daily Californian is doing it again, bless its soul.
The newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley has always had a
Madonna-like ability to reinvent itself, remaining relevant and
controversial long after its presumed zenith. The Daily Cal found itself in
the middle of a new controversy last week after it published a full-page
advertisement against reparations for slavery. The ad, written by
leftist-turned-right-wing-agitator David Horowitz, was titled, "Ten Reasons
Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea, and Racist Too."
It didn't go over well. Protesters representing minority groups showed up
at the Daily Cal's offices and demanded an apology; they also confiscated
whatever copies of the offending issue they could find. The incident was so
heated that the police showed up. The next day the paper published a
front-page apology and a lengthy explanation from its editor, who said the
ad should not have run.
But this political seppuku only sparked another round of objections, this
time from people who said the paper shouldn't have apologized, because the
ad was an expression of free speech (albeit paid for, at a cost of $1,200).
The controversy has revived the familiar debate:
Should speech, whether free or paid for, be limited at a college paper
because it might be inflammatory, or racist, or repulsive?
All of this takes me back to 1983, when I was on the paper's Senior
Editorial Board and we had to decide whether to run a recruiting ad from
the Central Intelligence Agency. The paper had refused such ads for many
years, but the political climate was changing, and the paper was in dire
financial straits. We needed the money.
After much debate along familiar lines, somebody suggested a brilliant
compromise, we should run the ad with a prominent disclaimer, of the sort
that appears on packs of cigarettes. It would say something like, "The
Central Intelligence Agency is an organization that has been involved in
the assassination of foreign leaders, the overturning of
democratically-elected governments, and the training of right-wing death
squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras." This way, the CIA would
get its ad, we could take their money with clear consciences, and the
language majors would find out that the agency was looking for a few good
spies to perform work of a potentially unsavory nature.
In the end, we refused the ad, for what I remember were unfortunate
doctrinaire reasons. I may have been responsible for some of those reasons,
since, as co-editor of the editorial page, I was the enforcer of the faith,
whatever it happened to be. We did, however, accept ads from the National
Security Agency, I suppose because we thought they hadn't actually killed
anyone. Consistency clearly wasn't our strong point. If you wanted
ponderous thinking from no-nonsense strivers, you would have done better to
swallow a No-Doz and consult the pages of the Stanford Daily or Harvard
The CIA fuss wasn't the only controversy at the time; in fact, it was a
trifle compared to the Dos Equis uproar. The beer company had paid for
color inserts that featured Hooters-ish females in tight shorts and tighter
shirts, hardly the picture of womanhood that many of our highly-educated
readers wished to see. A petition that ended up being several feet long was
gathered on Sproul Plaza and then presented to the paper's editors; some of
the petition-bearers were carrying copies of the offending insert, aflame.
We issued the sort of abject apology that today's Daily Cal editors issued
for the slavery ad. I would not equate the two ads, though. A tasteless
beer insert is planets apart, in its free speech implications, from an
inflammatory political statement. You can check out the ad at Horowitz's
website <http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/default.htm> and decide for
yourself whether it should have run; you can read the apology from the
paper's editor, too. <http://www.dailycal.org/article.asp?id=4763>
It's easy to understand why many people view the ad as racist, it's
certainly provocative, as it was intended to be. It is also intellectually
sloppy, to an extent that discredits its author. Some of what Horowitz
writes makes sense, some is utter nonsense, all of which argues in favor of
running his screed.
One of the lessons I learned after I graduated from Berkeley is that
unaired prejudices tend to fester and can, one day, burst in ugly ways. The
war in Bosnia, which I covered, is a case in point. Much of the nationalist
fury in the Balkans, especially on the Serb side, stemmed from the
manipulation of grudges that were not allowed to surface during Tito's long
rule. Just as truths were suppressed, the truths about which ethnic groups
were and were not victims in World War II and before, so too were lies
suppressed. Nothing was proved or disproved, and as a result, terrifying
wars were fought on the basis of myths.
Enforced silence is an inadequate defense against prejudice and discord. A
better strategy is to let everyone say what they think in a civil way. To
be sure, Horowitz's ad wasn't especially civil, and the paper might have
requested that he tone down his incendiary language. But by letting people
air controversial views you at least discover who and what you're up
against, and can begin to figure out a way to bring the truth to those who
All of which makes the ongoing controversy around the Daily Cal a positive
event. The ad, the protests, the apology, the protests against the apology,
and who knows what will come next, it amounts to a valuable debate on
issues that deserve a public hearing. I learned from the controversies
during my days at the Daily Cal, and enjoyed them; I hope the same holds
true for the current group of besieged editors.
Just beware of the beer ads.
PETER MAASS is the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. His
magazine articles, and extracts of his book, are archived at petermaass.com.
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