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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Stand up for the truth

Published: May 1, 2010
Section: Opinions

“Brandeis should have known better” is a phrase that’s been uttered far too often in the past few years, usually in a public relations context. Though the university seemed to be on a path toward repairing its image through its ostensibly transparent approach to achieving academic reform and financial sustainability, it took another step back with its handling of the fabricated controversy that arose around the recent “New Right-Wing Radicalism: A Transatlantic Perspective” conference, hosted by the Center for German and European Studies. By accepting the premises of the arguments of Fox News personalities Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly, Brandeis has not only once again displayed its inability to grasp the function of public relations, but it has betrayed the university’s motto of “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.”

Advertising for the conference on right-wing radicalism included a logo comprised of a crossed-out swastika. Because of a link to a Tea Party website on the conference’s website, word of the conference quickly grew in conservative circles, leading to coverage from Beck, Kelly (with Fox contributor Juan Williams), and Boston talk radio personality Michael Graham.

None of these conservatives took the time to do any research – or reading at all – about the conference. They all immediately assumed the use of the (crossed-out) swastika in the conference logo was meant to denigrate the Tea Party movement and brand Tea Partiers as neo-Nazis. Existing in that alternate universe, their “journalism” proceeded as such.

Beck accused the conference of being “a symposium on how the Tea Party movement is a Nazi-style movement,” before ranting and raving about Louis Brandeis’s “legacy fund for social justice.” Megyn Kelly and Juan Williams took turns distorting the conference’s aims, saying the logo tries to “paint [Tea Partiers] as Neo-Nazis.” Williams displayed the ultimate in cognitive dissonance, saying “To think you are justified in having a symposium that equates Tea Party people with Nazis? I think that’s nuts. I don’t want to malign the folks at Brandeis, but I don’t get it.”

No one would “get it” if that’s what “the folks at Brandeis” were actually doing, but anyone who can read and anyone who lives in the real world knows that this conference, hosted by the Center for German and European Studies, did not have, as its aim, to equate Tea Partiers with Nazis. The first half of the conference featured panelists discussing the resurgence of right-wing radicalism – including neo-Nazism – in contemporary Europe. The second half included panelists discussing the same subject from an American perspective; one panelist’s talk was titled “From Tea Parties to Armed Militias.”

Brandeis’s decision to remove the crossed-out swastika logo is hard to understand, because the criticism leveled against the logo’s use was based entirely on distortion. Though there are fringe elements of the Tea Party movement that endorse racism and violence, as a whole, the movement has been largely focused on issues separate from race (at least on the surface) and it has been largely nonviolent; it would be “nuts,” as Juan Williams said, to have a symposium equating Tea Partiers with Nazis. That’s not the conference that happened at Brandeis. The statement released by the university discussing the logo’s removal essentially apologized for the distortions created by conservative talking heads.

That’s not the way to do public relations. A university with the motto “Truth, even unto its innermost parts” should have been quick to firmly reject – not apologize for – the distortions of talking heads who care not a bit about the truth.