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Boiling point: How one Brandeis academic conference ended up on Fox News

Published: April 30, 2010
Section: News

Brandeis University found itself under attack from right-leaning media, angered by advertising that included a swastika for an academic conference that included a paper on the Tea Party movement.

Wednesday’s conference, “New Right-Wing Radicalism: a Transatlantic Perspective,” was sponsored by the university’s Center for German and European Studies. It featured papers primarily about the European right wing and neo-Nazism in the United States. Only one discussed the Tea Party movement, “From Tea Parties to Armed Militias.”

The paper itself didn’t draw fire, but the logo used to publicize the overall conference–a swastika inside the international symbol of negation–caused some to suggest Brandeis was equating the Tea Party with neo-Nazism.

Radio talk host Michael Graham lit into the conference Friday on his mid-day show on 96.9 Boston. Fox News hosts Glen Beck and Megyn Kelly also picked up on the controversy.

In an interview with The Hoot on Monday Graham said he was alerted to the forum by an e-mail from a Brandeis student. He then looked at the website, where, among other things, he was upset by the link to a video of the recent Tea Party rally in Boston featuring Sarah Palin.

“[The rally] is something that I personally helped publicize, and here you have Brandeis linking me, essentially, to neo-Nazis,” Graham said.

He said he was also bothered by the description of the conference as including “discussion of a wide range of movements and activities in the United States, from the extreme and violent to the Tea Party, as a point of comparison.”

After Graham voiced his objections on air, the Center for German and European Studies was besieged with phone calls and e-mails from enraged Tea Partiers.

By the weekend, the university had removed the link to the Tea Party rally from the conference’s website, issued an official apology about its use of the swastika and removed the swastikas from fliers advertising the event.

Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL), director of the center, said Monday she and her colleagues were caught off guard by the strong reaction. She said they decided to include the Tea Party in the conference because “we always find it is helpful for students if we give them a reference point within the United States to compare Europe to.”

“The Tea Party is the most recent political phenomenon on the right,” she said. “It would be strange to talk about the radical right without making the connection.”

She acknowledged that the swastika was provocative, but that the intention was to draw students to the event.

“We usually have trouble attracting students to these types of events, and the swastika not only fit the topic but also seemed like it would gain us some attention.”

Indeed, it was not until Graham picked up on the conference that von Mering heard any complaints about its topic or advertisements.

“Those fliers were up for about a week before we heard anything about it. There was no on-campus response at all,” she said. “Students only got riled up once they heard Fox News had anything to say about it.”

Beck, on his nationally syndicated radio show, and Megyn Kelly, anchor of “America Live” on the Fox News Channel, discussed the events on air Friday, April 23.

Beck said the university’s use of the swastika was not surprising given it was named after Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

“When [Louis Brandeis] died, he died wealthy and he left a legacy fund for social justice, so it’s not surprising that Brandeis would bring this swastika to represent the Tea Party,” Beck said. In fact, the social justice fund was established by a member of the Brandeis class of ’57, not by Louis Brandeis.

“Brandeis is putting the Nazi symbol up and saying they are doing a symposium on how the Tea Party movement is a Nazi-styled movement,” Beck added.

According to von Mering, neither Kelly nor Beck contacted the university before commenting on air. At the end of last Friday’s segment, Kelly did offer to give the university an opportunity to respond. However, the network canceled a segment scheduled to air Monday that would have featured Andrew Gully, Brandeis’ senior vice president for communications and external affairs.

Neither Kelly nor Beck responded to requests to comment on their coverage.

“Honestly, what I see is that [the controversy] has nothing to do with the conference,” von Mering said. “This is just people wanting to confirm stereotypes of universities as havens for aggressively liberal progressives.”

“This is not based on facts. I have people calling to tell me that Hitler was extreme left wing and that therefore Obama is the real fascist,” she continued. “This response is just mind-blowing.”

Chip Berlet, the author of the disputed paper, said Wednesday he had not been expecting the media attention to the conference.

“My paper explicitly discusses how the Tea Party is not a part of this extreme, violent right wing,” he said. “If they had done research they would have seen that I take the Tea Party very seriously and believe they should be treated respectfully and as a legitimate political movement.”

Von Mering added that she believed the university’s reputation as a school with Jewish roots had complicated the publicity the conference has received.

“These people aren’t interested in German studies; they are interested in Brandeis as a Jewish university using the swastika for what they would call our liberal agenda,” she said.

Graham said he planned to attend the conference. “I do want to know how they could have made this connection that I think is intellectually indefensible,” he said prior to the conference. “Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something.”