Amy Gutmann’s Halloween Fadihah: How to Recover from a Public Humiliation

On October 31, 2006, President Amy Gutmann held her annual Halloween party triggering an image and series of events that demonstrates much of what ails academia these days. While there are conflicting reports as to what actually happened, the photograph and her response to its publication indicates a problem that goes well beyond President Gutmann’s problematic behavior.


A picture to regret: Grinning honkey trying to be generous of spirit.

As far as can be ascertained, the following events occurred:

President Gutmann allowed herself to have pictures taken with student guests at the party one by one, including with a senior student, Saad Saadi, who chose to dress as a suicide bomber with a kafiya around his head, a toy rifle and replica of bombs around his torso. All the photos in question, later posted at Saadia’s website, and still later taken down, were shot at the President’s home, during party she sponsored for her students.

Among the photos taken at the party we find Mr. Saadi and other guests at the party enacting “execution” scenarios that have become the “snuff films” of the 21st century for a wide range of web-surfers.

saadia executes
Not to get too psychoanalytic, but there is something profoundly sado-masochistic about this one that reminds me of the self-flagellating self-loathing that Pascal Bruckner talks about in his latest book.

Another photo was taken with a child in a superhero costume aiming Mr. Saadi’s gun at the camera. This was titled “Influencing a future Mujahideen.”

saadia and kid
Saadia, under the guise of “just good fun” gets to offer American kids that thrill of destruction and inflicting fear with which Palestinian elites regularly corrupt their children.

Yet another was taken with a student wearing a Statue of Liberty pose, labeled: Freedom Fighter and Freedom Statue.

freedom fighter and statue
Saadia plays his hand. He’s selling this as “freedom fighter.” The “statue” shows no self-respect.

Saadi said when he approached Gutmann for the photo, she joked, “‘How did they let you through security?” It remains open whether Gutmann understood he was a suicide bomber, or just noticed the gun. Actually, it’s a good question. Didn’t the cops at security have enough self-respect to object to the costume?

Saadi added that while some party guests expressed disapproval at the costume, more people were complimentary. These students at the party who complimented him probably did so with this Michael Moore notion of jihadis as “minute men” in mind.

Engineering senior Saad Saadi came dressed as a suicide bomber, or, as he alternately titled the costume, a “freedom martyr.”

The whole incident has caused quite an uproar. Indeed, Saadi himself has taken down the photos and apologized with apparent sincerity.

My friend, Jason, and I express our condolences and sympathy to all offended by our costumes. We wish to make it clear that we do not support terrorism, violence, or anything that is against society. There is no agenda or statement associated with our behavior shown in these pictures. The costumes are meant to portray scary characters much like many other costumes on Halloween. We are deeply sorry for anyone who has been hurt or upset. Additionally, we strive for all societies to instill healthy non-violent values.

As I read this, I feel something like Otto (Klein) in a Fish Called Wanda after the upside down Archie (Cleese) apologized so perfectly he couldn’t find something to pick a fight over. In comparison with Gutmann’s PR advisors (see below), I’d hire these guys. The question is, are these the words of a demopath or a sincere person committed to the values enunciated?

President Gutman has responded to the brouhahahaha with a statement that epitomizes the problem:

Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.

The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.

What PR committee put this together? And where is Prof. Amy Gutmann, professor specializing in, of all things, democracy. Is this all we get? A tired repetition of the “free speech” trope which has long ago — at least among people thinking hard about democracy and the threats it faces –been problematized (to the non-initiate, that means you can’t just invoke it and expect people to nod yes, it’s got lots of problems as a formulation). What we have here is a carefully worded statement designed not to offend “either side.” But as Winfield Myers says: this is a moral dodge.

Where was the leadership President Gutmann invoked at her inaugural address:

The higher education community must take the higher road. We need to fix our moral compass, fuel our will, and fire our imaginations by what unites rather than divides…Let us extend the example of Muslim and Jewish students at Penn who pursued dialogue and fellowship after the tragedy of 9/11.

Here’s certainly one track to the moral compass: seek the kinds of things that unite (like mutual respect). Here’s the way to discourse. What unites us. Not what fires the imagination towards the most pathologically destructive and divisive ways.

I don’t know — but would be very interested in — what happened in that Jewish-Muslim dialogue, how much it was constructive, how much it was Muslim demopaths playing Jewish dupes into kashering “martyr minutemen”… Maybe it is only now that the temper of that dialogue will be tested.

Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh have discussed this. The legal thinker Volokh points to the “right to express,” and finds merit in Saadi’s explanation that Halloween is for scary costumes. Reynolds presses the point about bad taste, that by not refusing to be pictured, even sending the student away, Gutmann permitted for this costume what she would not for a KKK or a Nazi one. In other words, if we have limits to what we allow in politically correct conditions — and no one would deny that UPenn does — then her unwillingness to speak out forcefully meant that suicide terrorism was politically correct, even if at the margins. While KKK and Nazi merit rebuke, we cannot quite bring ourselves to rebuke these… “freedom fighters”(?!).

I agree with Reynolds here: this is not a matter of law — of course he has the right to dress up no matter how grotesquely — but of taste. How does the President of a University react when asked to be friendly with someone who chooses such a costume at a time when suicide terrorism is the waxing scourge of the planet.

(I note that Blake considered taste the organizer of imagination in the redeemed state.)

Of course the democratic ideal of free speech and tolerance involves allowing some very deranged and bizarre things — often hostile to the “powers that be” — to reach the public, things that prime divider societies systematically, and if necessarily, violently supress. We don’t do that. We allow people to speak their minds. But democracies thrive not only when anyone can say anything, but when members of the public have the good sense to distance themselves from the morally grotesque things that some people will inevitably say when given that freedom. And among such moral depravities, I would definitely include the notion that blowing oneself up amidst “enemy” civilians with home-made cluster bombs constitutes a vehicle to “freedom” that will get me to heaven.

No serious historian of democratic revolution could possibly argue that a revolutionary movement with such utter contempt for human life even before it takes power would ever, were it to achieve its goals, bring freedom. On the contrary, the only clearly parallel case, that of the Communist revolutionaries and their early use of terror before taking power indicates a direct link between early behavior and the extermination of tens of millions of “enemies.” If we ignore this tragic tendency of revolutionary energies, if we fail to offer rebuke at an early stage in their development, we pave the way to the success of some of the most terrible tendencies in mankind.

The very argument, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” embodies the victory of demopath over dupe. In some extremely rare, desparate and highly limited cases, such an argument might possibly be argued. But to apply it as a formula that seals with approval all terrorists, including the most depraved in the history of a depraved phenomenon — i.e., suicide terrorists who blow themselves up in the middle of a civilian population, strikes me as folly for those who cherish freedom.

For the demopath this is a spectacular victory: “I get you to approve my designs for your conquest as the embodiment of the very values you cherish and I plan to destroy.” For the dupe this is fool’s bargain: “I accept your good faith, despite the multiple signs I should be wary, and I get to keep doing what I’m doing without dealing with really big problems.”

This is not to say that Saad Saadi, who is apparently not Muslim, is a demopath. I am willing to accept his “Halloween” explanation. His website is above all superficial. Not an essay, not a position on any political issue. Mostly indulgent (semi) hi-tech silliness, and video-enabled narcissism. But he is, like everyone and probably more than most, subject to the mimetic force of suicide bombing and the death-cult deeds it inspires. Indeed, his playful training of a future “freedom fighter,” echoes eerily the emergence of new computer games which Jihadis encourage Muslim children in Europe to play which does indeed train future Muhehadeen.

In this sense, he is like a mini (very mini) Baudrillard, thrilled by any blow at the American/Western hegemon, even if the hegemon allows him the glorious indulgences of college and the blows represent the nadir of human depravity. In that sense he may be, in his own way, a dupe, enjoying his Halloween thrill of brushing up against nihilism just as some do with sexuality. For him, as for so many in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of post-2000 media, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is just another truism that no one even bothers to challenge.

And perhaps that’s what is the problem with President Gutmann. Not that she approves of suicide terrorism, not that, given a moment’s thought, she couldn’t wax eloquent on the moral depravity of the affair (although one wonders whether she thinks it’s born of despair or of the outrageous hope of genocidal hatred). But it’s so much a part of the atmosphere now, that it’s not instinctive to recoil in horror as she should have. Nothing is more profoundly anti-civil, anti-democratic, anti-freedom than the deed of suicide terrorism and the world of Jihadi genocidal martyrdom that lies behind it. Nothing calls for a leader like President Gutmann to stand by her call to unite, than the courage to distance herself visibly from such acts of “free speech.” If our leaders don’t understand that the way they respond to the abuse of freedom is a fundamental part of the exercise of freedom, and a way to set the moral compass, then we may not survive our experiment in freedom. (Presumably Prof. Gutmann knows that democracy is an experiment… and that it can [and has] failed.)

And for those who think this is a tempest in a teapot, let me explain to you how this looks from the other side. Let’s consider the world according to honor and shame. Let’s go back to the picture:

gutmann and saadi

This is a good illustration of the cultural dominance that anti-American Arab/Islamic nihilism feels and seeks over Western culture. They are big men, we are small women; they can play their very intentions to kill us right in front of us — even get us to play along — and we smile and think it’s cute and maybe just a little bit exhilirating. Saadi is not in the same game as President Gutmann, who beams like a beauty queen, high on a night of lady bountiful, the good witch of the West. He is serious, no smile. He looks out beyond the cameraman, eyeing another stage, another audience. To them he presents himself as an icon, an icon of victory. He won this round hands down.

Of course, we don’t see it this way. For us, if we wish to deal with the incident at all, we’d put it down to President Gutmann’s politeness, and to the principled stand for freedom of speech that she invoked. We are strong because we can tolerate such foolishness.

But let’s continue the honor-shame analysis: Gutmann knows she’s been embarrassed. That photo is one she’ll shudder to look at for a long time. So what’s her response? To take the licking and try and figure out what happened? Or to go for a legalistic figleaf and weasel out? Unfortunately we get, once again, the anti-modern, anti-democratic, but perfectly understandable choice of honor over honesty. (Update: She’s apologized, although like the pope, she apologizes for “the offense this photo has caused.”.)

What would it look like the other way around? That is, were Gutmann to be honest and seek integrity rather than saving face?

First, she’d say she made a mistake and that she greatly regrets her picture with this student. Instead of “the student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.” She could have said, I failed to exercise good taste and understanding of the stakes involved when I failed to ask the student to leave the premises immediately, reassuring him he has the right to dress as he wants, but not at the reception of a University President committed to finding a moral compass. And if not immediately, long before a second grotesque “re-enactment” of executions took place on the grounds.

But to do that would take courage. It would mean that President Gutmann would be ready to publicly say that one man’s terrorist is not another’s freedom fighter, most obviously in the case of suicide terrorists. It would mean telling the Arab Students and Muslim Students, who spend most of the time mainstreaming such poisonous drivel, that they were on notice, that that kind of demopathy was not welcome at University of Pennsylvania. It would mean showing both a passionate commitment to real democracy and even self-respect as a 21st century American, inheritor of a 230-year experiment in freedom.

Sounds like a teaching moment to me.

Recommendations:

1) President Gutmann should use this unfortunate fiasco as a springboard to some real education for democracy and freedom. Among other things, she might prepare a major exhibit on suicide-terror victims from the world over, with particular attention to the massive and persistent losses suffered by Israelis since the beginning of this century.

2) She could ask Saad and Jason, and anyone else who thought the costume was cute (including the members of v arious violently anti-Israel groups on campus to attend a sensitivity training session in which students can experience what these martyrdom operations feel like from the side of Israeli civilians, in which they can begin to understand the morally depraved world of fanaticism that underlies these attacks.

3) The State of Israel and Israeli advocates could invite Saad and Jason to come to Israel, visit with some of the families of victims, speak to some of the Arabs who fear the spread of the “revolutionary forces” these two find worthy of admiration. Who knows, Saad, with his totemic identification with predatory cats, may be a dupe and not a demopath, and when confronted with the pain such juvenile fantasies inflict in real life, he might too change his tune and mature.

Ultimately, without that maturity, democracy cannot survive the onslaught of libido dominandi, the lust to dominate.

7 Responses to Amy Gutmann’s Halloween Fadihah: How to Recover from a Public Humiliation

  1. igout says:

    My recommendation to her, and to her caste, is to get some backbone.

    If you head over to Gates of Vienna (http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/) and scroll down to a piece about roast beef and England you’ll see a picture that deserves to be put next to that of beaming, clueless President Guttman. It’s a print, Napoleanic era I’d judge, of John Bull. He isn’t the refined portly gentleman in the top hat that we’re all used to thinking of. No, aything but: this guy is a downright redneck, lean, slovenly, sullenly immovable.

    I have no doubt that he and the new would-be Islamic Herrnvolk would understand each other very well, and I’d put my money on him. We have such people still, but we can’t see or hear them,at least not yet…

  2. Eliyahu says:

    People may forget but many German Nazis considered themselves German patriots [= freedom fighters] and socialists of a sort who were struggling against the injustice and humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, for instance, against the occupation of the Saar until 1935 by France, etc. They fought for Germany’s freedom. They said so themselves. The German and French Communists supported many of the Nazis’ territorial demands [see French historian Georges Goriely]. These CPers argued that Germany was the victim of international capitalism.

    When Hitler met the palestinian Arab leader, Haj Amin el-Husseini [in 1941], he promised him that, in addition to “solving” the Jewish question in Europe, the Nazis wanted to “solve” it outside of Europe too, as Husseini [also called Mufti of Jerusalem] and his associates had requested. Hitler spoke to Husseini of Arab freedom. He promised that when German troops had crossed the Caucasus [coming south from the USSR] “then will strike the hour of Arab liberation.” See, Hitler wanted freedom too, and national liberation for the Arabs.

  3. Eliyahu says:

    to go on with the “freedom of expression” argument. Yes, legally [and only legally], someone has a right in the USA [a very liberal country as to free expression] to wear a suicide bomber costume. Likewise, a host or hostess [such as Amy G] has the right to tell a person wearing such a costume to leave the host’s premises immediately. Here it does not matter whether the premises were Amy G’s private property or university property. Now, the “freedom of expression” brings us back to the Nazis. The free speech argument has often been used in the USA to defend Nazis’ right to free expression and free speech. This defense has often been made by such self-styled defenders of civil liberties as the ACLU [Amer. civil liberties union]. The argument is fake and hypocritical.
    We should bear in mind that in the 1930s, the Nazis were treated as respectable persons in many Western countries, while in the Arab world they were honored. Pacifists in Britain and France stressed the need to understand the German Nazis’s demands for the sake of peace, etc. See: http://www.netanyahu.org/peacmovthena.html
    Hitler was praised by French poets and novelists. As I recall from the linked-to article, novelist Jean Giono called Hitler “a poet in action” or some such. So people who should know better can get caught up in the mystique of “peace” with mass murderers or mass murderers as freedom fighters. Can we forget the pro-Nazi sympathies of the socially prominent, highly placed Cliveden Set in London, and particularly such sympathies on the part of the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VII??? So there is no need for us to be bashful or apologetic about attacking a university president on this issue. And the “freedom of expression” argument is contemptible. We know that when an establishment wants to squelch someone, they do it.

  4. anonymous says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and most of the time I gotta say I like the stuff, but this last post seems a little off-target. you could talk about the hizbollah judge elected in michigan, or the democrats taking the house and the impending jihad that will doubtless precipitate, or the muslim representative in minnesota, or the shelling in gaza. i am confident something fishy is going on, and you’re the first man i turn to for such investigations.

    as a satire, the post is brilliant, especially the analysis from an honor-shame point of view and the recommendations, that’s gold. also the brief, and tangentially related history lesson by frequent commentator eliyahu–a nice touch. but something tells me you’re dead-serious, which is perhaps funny in a different way.

    talking about al-durah, and gaza beach, and reutersgate, that seems relevant and important. a halloween party at u penn–less important. do you get this upset when mel brooks mocks hitler, or can he get away with it because he is a jew? i’m just not really sure what you’re trying to do here. do you really think u penn will implement your recommendations? are the poor, helpless jews really being duped by the evil, blood-thirsty muslims and their apologists? that seems too manichean to believe. i’m not sure he is ‘on another stage’; it’s just as plausible to assume he’s high or drunk, but that would not accord with your analysis. what would you say if someone dressed up in trenchcoats a la columbine? it’s just as much a fetishization of death and violence. or does that breach of taste not concern you? what do you expect gutmann to do, lecture him in front of everybody, make a stirring speech about ‘moral compasses’ (i’m skeptical of the sincerity of such a formalized address to begin with), or construct a hasty exhibit about suicide bombing victims?

    i agree the costume was insensitive, but you’re raising the terror alert here unnecessarily, showing a complete lack of perspective. you end up appearing more foolish than either saad, or gutmann, by heralding it (seriously, mind you!) as another of the many turnpoints in the continued failure of american democracy and the erosion of values. if you yell all the time, no one will register your urgency.

    and look, i’m prepared for your accusations of terrorist sympathizer, and eliyahu’s comparisons to ‘french poets who hailed hitler,’ and how i’m refusing to acknowledge any problem until i’m down on my knees chanting ‘allah akhbar’ five times a day. but the fact is that you have to pick your battles in a polemical war; and this battle, i think, was ill-advised.

    your observation about saad’s site was dead-on: “Mostly indulgent (semi) hi-tech silliness, and video-enabled narcissism.” perhaps the 4th recommendation should have been to ‘read more of the augean stables blog.’

  5. RL says:

    answer to anonymous:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and most of the time I gotta say I like the stuff, but this last post seems a little off-target. you could talk about the hizbollah judge elected in michigan, or the democrats taking the house and the impending jihad that will doubtless precipitate, or the muslim representative in minnesota, or the shelling in gaza. i am confident something fishy is going on, and you’re the first man i turn to for such investigations.

    thank you. my blog is a little slow for breaking news, for a variety of reasons. this post was actually sitting in the pre-publish state for several days.

    as a satire, the post is brilliant, especially the analysis from an honor-shame point of view and the recommendations, that’s gold. also the brief, and tangentially related history lesson by frequent commentator eliyahu–a nice touch. but something tells me you’re dead-serious, which is perhaps funny in a different way.

    as the honor-shame expression goes, i’m beginning to blush with embarrassment. and i will admit that as i wrote it, i had a sense that it cd read as parody.

    talking about al-durah, and gaza beach, and reutersgate, that seems relevant and important. a halloween party at u penn–less important. do you get this upset when mel brooks mocks hitler, or can he get away with it because he is a jew? i’m just not really sure what you’re trying to do here. do you really think u penn will implement your recommendations?

    i laughed almost continuously when i watched the movie. i found the broadway play far less funny and i admit to a certain discomfort with it’s immense popularity. it is the ultimate tight-rope walk on bad taste. and yes, he can get away with it cause he’s jewish. jews are mercilessly self-depracating jokesters. but the whole issue in humor is whether you’re laughing “with” or “at.” the latter is liberating (esp from pretensions), the latter is (or can be) cruel. the former is part of integrity-guilt; the latter honor-shame.

    are the poor, helpless jews really being duped by the evil, blood-thirsty muslims and their apologists? that seems too manichean to believe.

    i’m not sure what you think makes it manichean. i think this is happening all the time right now, altho i wdn’t quite put it so clumsily as you have. not all demopaths are bloodthirsty (eg Tariq Ramadan), and not all jews (here, i’d say non-muslims) are poor and helpless. but the duping of well-intentioned liberals by people who despise liberal values but use them to their advantage… that is one of the great problems of our time, as it was of the 1930s. have you read my essay on demopaths and dupes? i’d appreciate feedback.

    i’m not sure he is ‘on another stage’; it’s just as plausible to assume he’s high or drunk, but that would not accord with your analysis.

    sure it would. he finds suicide terrorism and its adjuncts (execution videos) to be an attractive persona to slip on. it’s not even ideological. (i personally think Saad’s not deep enuf to be ideological, but who knows, i cd be wrong.) but drunk, high, both, all that could most surely fit the case as i analyze it.

    what would you say if someone dressed up in trenchcoats a la columbine? it’s just as much a fetishization of death and violence. or does that breach of taste not concern you? what do you expect gutmann to do, lecture him in front of everybody, make a stirring speech about ‘moral compasses’ (i’m skeptical of the sincerity of such a formalized address to begin with), or construct a hasty exhibit about suicide bombing victims?

    good points. columbine would be nasty, altho they are two loners, and preceded by keanu reeves in the matrix. i’d consider columbine in very bad taste, esp in the couple of years after. but this is much bigger than columbine. and yes, i wd have liked AG to dress him down. not necessarily in public, but at least to take him aside and say, “look, i don’t know why you chose this costume, but you really have to understand, this is grotesque, especially now. go home, change, but don’t stay here dressed like that.” the reason i’m pushing this, is that the grotesquely innaccurate, stupid, and (long-term) self-destructive trope: “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” is so pervasive, that if we don’t challenge it when we can, we’re in trouble.

    i agree the costume was insensitive, but you’re raising the terror alert here unnecessarily, showing a complete lack of perspective. you end up appearing more foolish than either saad, or gutmann, by heralding it (seriously, mind you!) as another of the many turnpoints in the continued failure of american democracy and the erosion of values. if you yell all the time, no one will register your urgency.

    good points. but i’m not heralding this party as that. i’m heralding how this could have been, could still be handled as a potential turning point in the public debate. it probably won’t be. but what lies behind that attitude is my sense of urgency that we do need to change the nature of the public discussion, and i’m looking for ways. (for a parallel example of this overall point, see the conclusion of my post on qana and what it “might have” been.

    and look, i’m prepared for your accusations of terrorist sympathizer, and eliyahu’s comparisons to ‘french poets who hailed hitler,’ and how i’m refusing to acknowledge any problem until i’m down on my knees chanting ‘allah akhbar’ five times a day. but the fact is that you have to pick your battles in a polemical war; and this battle, i think, was ill-advised.

    point taken. altho i think you need to restate your “trigger point.” when you’re down on your knees, it’s too late.

    your observation about saad’s site was dead-on: “Mostly indulgent (semi) hi-tech silliness, and video-enabled narcissism.” perhaps the 4th recommendation should have been to ‘read more of the augean stables blog.’

    thanks for the continued vote of confidence. i’d be happy to go on that suggested trip with saad around israel, and even go with him to the “occupied territories”, to see whether there’s more to him than meets the eye.

  6. Eliyahu says:

    to Anon,
    yes, I too would consider a Columbine costume in extremely bad taste. Of course, I think that these phenomena are related. There has been a frightful unraveling of civilization since the start of WW2. The terrorism perpetrated by Muslims is only part of it, although I believe that to a great extent the publicity given to atrocities by Muslims –and the acceptance and “understanding” of such atrocities by purported moral leaders in the West– have incited people throughout the world to commit atrocities to relieve their anger over whatever grievances they may have. Columbine was one case in point. Massacres and “shooting sprees” like Columbine are not entirely unprecedented in the USA. In the 1940s, a man named Howard Unruh went on a “shooting spree” in Camden, NJ, killing a dozen or more people at random, as I recall. That was shortly after WW2, which may have had some impact on the Unruh case. Then there was somebody shooting from a tower in Texas in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Arab terrorism against Israel, in particular, and its acceptance or even approval elsewhere give powerful encouragement to many others to commit mass murder to relieve their own rage over all sorts of personal grievances. I believe that the Oslo accords of 1993 –by giving approval, that is, international endorsement, to mass murderers– gave a great impetus to the trend toward international moral degeneration [the callousness toward human life] that we have been witnessing for several decades. That is, Oslo’s harmful effects were worldwide, they were not merely limited to Israel. Amy G’s apparently witting acceptance of the suicide bomber costume is a sign of this moral decay.
    Richard, with your expertise in French, can we call Amy G “louche” or “demi-mondaine”?

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