WASHINGTON — There was a time when America’s colleges and universities considered free speech to be protected as long it didn’t involve inciting a riot or shouting fire in a crowded theater or such. No longer is that true, it seems.
A disruption over Nazi Richard Spencer’s appearance at Michigan State University was clear enough evidence that there is a new tolerance for irrational rhetoric afoot on the campus. Even when it is clear that it will or might lead to violence, administrators are reluctant to deny even the most dangerous speech because they are concerned that to do so diminishes the legitimacy of the academy.
Well so much for the idea that free thought fares better in a nonviolent atmosphere. The free speech movement of the 1960s proved that far more was accomplished by peaceful sit-ins and marches than militant activity. The Weather Underground and its bombs were not nearly as effective as the megaphone demanding the right to calm and measured debate.
But what about the notion of free access to free spaces — the soap box on the corner? Fine, but even Hyde Park has its limits. Smashing the heads of those who agree with the speaker or vice versa doesn’t really occur in the icon of British free speech.
The resurgence of anger among younger white male Americans is rooted in a feeling of social displacement supported at times by the current presidential administration. On the other side, fascism is the most hateful and obnoxious of political movements, one that infuriates any rational human being and pushes him or her toward violent extremes. The minute a Spencer appearance is announced the wheels of angst begin grinding toward mayhem. Our own emotions to the word “Nazi” spark such anger. Its connection to the Holocaust so enrages us that we want to take extreme action against anyone who would find an ounce of nobility in promoting its concepts.
Still, there are the despicable ignoramuses who believe they have the same rights to argue such putrid garbage as those who freely rebut it from the academic stage.
Now here’s the crunch. That might not be the case if they weren’t yelling fire in the crowded theater, which the white supremacists certainly are — and they know it.
College and university presidents these days are hired for their money-raising skills; the academic decisions are mainly in the hands of deans and vice presidents of academic affairs. Yet in the end, if things go wrong, the blame is tied to the school’s chief executive, on grounds he has failed to see the dangers and prepare for them.
A long time ago the U.S. Supreme Court gave us the way out. It said there are such things as “fighting words” and applied to the Constitution the restriction of inciting to overthrow the government or panicking an audience resulting in dire consequences by shouting fire when there isn’t one. So, the president or other top administrator has plenty of leeway to deny what he feels is a clear or present danger to the school and its students.
Cities may withhold a permit for a protest march depending on what they believe the outcome may be or the cost or even the lack of adequate security.
For nearly every cause, there are venues where the message can be disseminated safer than on a campus where anger is always quick to ignite. Colleges are vulnerable exactly because they believe it is their duty to expand knowledge everywhere and for whatever the cost, which can be extremely high including injury, death and destruction.
Michigan State officials knew and warned that there might be disruption, and violence; even moving the venue to the far reaches of the campus didn’t help. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the fights that broke out. But the school should have just said no to Spencer. Their first obligation is always to the students and the institution.
When the artist Ventiko and I walked downstairs in the spacious Venice home she was visiting, Dexter was perched on a wraparound sofa that had been covered with pee pads. His long tail feathers cascaded gracefully to the floor.
Dexter’s claws were painted a vibrant —you might say peacock — shade of blue. Ventiko’s toenails, as it happened, were the same color. “Matchy, matchy,” she said with a smile.
She stood in front of the bird, cooing. He raised his face to her. She gently cupped her hands around his face and began rubbing them together, the way you do when you’re trying to get warm.
“He loves when I do this,” said Ventiko, a single-monikered conceptual artist and photographer whose thwarted flight from Newark to Los Angeles last month made headlines after United Airlines refused to let her bring Dexter aboard as a support animal, even after she purchased him a seat.
Their story set off a debate about emotional support animals: Where is the line? Who gets to draw it?
I believe all pets provide emotional comfort and support, be they feathered or four-footed. I can understand an airline not wanting a passenger to bring aboard a 15-pound peacock with a yard-long feather train. And I can understand not wanting to check a beloved pet like a piece of luggage.
But when I heard that Ventiko and Dexter had pulled up in Venice, the one question I wanted to answer was how a woman could develop such a deep emotional bond with a peacock.
Like so many unconventional relationships, it started with an ad on Craigslist.
In 2014, Ventiko was preparing an installation to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, an annual international art fair.
Inspired by Umberto Eco’s book “On Beauty,” she created a lush, living outdoor tableau with flora, fauna, three naked models — including herself— and a sex doll (because one of her sponsors, Real Doll, makes them). As she thought about the art crowds that flock to Miami every year, she decided to garnish her piece with birds.
Canaries, she discovered, were expensive — $40 each. Perusing Craigslist, she discovered an ad for Dexter, and a peahen named Etta. Two peacocks for $200.
“I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’ That just seemed like a better deal.”
The seller was an attorney in Jupiter, Fla., who was tired of people coming onto his lawn to look at the birds. “He was paranoid. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen,” Ventiko said. She crated the pair and hauled them to her installation. When she opened the crate, they promptly took wing.
“My friend went after Etta, and I went after Dexter, who was flying into glass. I scooped him up, and was like, ‘Oh my peacock, oh my darling,’ and he just, like, immediately wrapped around my neck and that was it.”
They were inseparable. “He would perch on my arm, and he just really became the true embodiment of the stereotype of peacocks — representing beauty and just loving attention.”
When the installation came down, Ventiko, who lives in a loft in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, arranged to have the birds move in with an artist in North Port, Fla., a man with a yard and a good heart.
Dexter and Etta mated, had four peachicks, then tragedy struck: Etta and the babies were eaten by a predator, and Dexter, in his grief, began to bite. The kind-hearted artist was going to leave him on the side of the road, near some other peacocks.
Ventiko intervened. “I felt a huge commitment to this animal, and I really wanted to do right by him.”
She flew Dexter to Brooklyn, via Delta, in a dog kennel. She thought about buying some land for him in the Dominican Republic. Maybe she could create an artists’ residency and a community farm. Dexter would live out his life in tropical splendor, and Ventiko could come down and surf. But the Dominican Republican prohibits the importation of birds.
A farming family in rural Long Island offered to take Dexter. He lasted a week and a half. He was calm only around Ventiko. No other human would do.
“I ask him all the time, ‘Why are you in my life?’ I feel chosen. I am much calmer. I am much more responsible. I am much more thoughtful, and I really think I am a better person.”
When Dexter was refused a seat on the plane, Ventiko loaded him into a car with a friend and drove across the country to Venice Beach. Mostly, he sat on her lap.
During the trip, she photographed and filmed scenes for her current project, featuring two artists friends, both pregnant, in an exploration of patriarchy, future and past. Will Dexter be involved?
“Naturally,” she replied. “Peacocks represent infinity, and immortality, and all-knowingness. They are connected to god and holiness. There are lots of medieval paintings of peacocks on the roof of the manger. And they are the national bird of India.”
Ventiko and Dexter are back in Brooklyn, where they share a 950-square-foot loft with two rescue cats. She hopes to find a place with a yard soon. At the recommendation of the vet who cares for a famous trio of peacocks at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ventiko puts a harness on Dexter and walks him every day.
Even in New York, a lady walking a peacock can cause a stir.
“When I take him out, people say, ‘Oh my God, a peacock!’ And I say, ‘No, it is not. You have got to stop with the acid! It is clearly a blue cat.’”
I wanted to list female political leaders to watch in 2018, in honor of International Women’s Day, but the list is sadly disappointing.
Currently, there are only 20 women holding the office of head of state or head of government — which equals 6.3 percent of the 315 international leaders. And two of the heads of state — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Denmark’s Margrethe II — are hereditary queens.
No wonder the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap report predicts that it will take 99 years to, maybe, reach political parity between male and female leaders. (Will it take that long, I wonder, after the Hillary debacle for the United States to elect a woman president?)
Nor have women leaders fared particularly well in recent years. Several female prime ministers lost elections during the last decade. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff was impeached for budget malfeasance, South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye was impeached for corruption in 2016 and is awaiting trial, and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was defeated in 2015 and found guilty of abusing power by the country’s constitutional court. Given the political history of those countries, it’s not clear whether these leaders would have been treated better if they were male.
In one happy contrast, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state (in 2006), survived some dips to step down with dignity in 2018.
Of those female leaders now in power, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been state counsellor (equivalent to prime minister) since 2016, has been the biggest disappointment. A heroic fighter for democracy and human rights, she suffered 15 years of house arrest and won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. But she has refused to criticize Myanmar’s military for its massive ethnic cleansing and brutalization of 500,000 members of the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority, who have fled to Bangladesh.
So who, among the remaining 18 non-queenly female leaders, should you watch in 2018?
First and foremost is the indomitable Angela Merkel, German chancellor since 2005. In her final term, her power has dipped and her party’s parliamentary bloc shrunk, but she just concluded a difficult coalition accord with the Social Democrats. This will provide some vital stability in a Europe shaken by a populist surge in Italy and Central Europe. Merkel is still an anchor for Europe, which the continent badly needs.
Which brings us to the second European leader to watch: Theresa May, the weakened prime minister of the United Kingdom. The U.K.’s drawn-out Brexit is further destabilizing Europe. This year will reveal whether May can negotiate a divorce from the European Union without crashing her island’s economy and sparking new strife in Northern Ireland.
Then I would watch the two female Baltic presidents, Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia and the reelected Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania. It takes particular skill to manage Baltic affairs with Vladimir Putin’s Russia breathing down their necks and seeking to manipulate their politics, but the Baltic leaders have been managing astonishingly well.
Speaking of Russia, I would watch Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old former TV star who has had the gall to challenge Putin in the March 18 presidential election. She will probably draw only a tiny percentage of the vote but has at least managed to insert some real issues into state-controlled TV coverage. (She is tolerated as a candidate, unlike the banned and far more potent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, because her dad was a friend of Putin’s and her unthreatening presence gives Putin cover to claim the election is free.)
I would also recommend watching Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is not recognized as a sovereign leader by China or the United Nations. She has had to govern with a strong and steady hand to balance Beijing’s constant pressure and President Trump’s Taiwan gaffes. (By the way, you won’t find any senior female leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping will be confirmed as virtual president for life this week.)
And finally, it’s worth paying attention to the talented Michelle Bachelet, first Chilean president since 1932 to win twice in the presidential elections, as well as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, who at 37 is the youngest prime minister in the world.
With such a tiny sample of women leaders, it’s hard to tell whether their performance is truly affected by gender or whether it reflects their countries’ cultures and histories in the same way it does for their male counterparts.
But we will never know until the sample is vastly expanded. And, if the Gender Gap report is correct, that won’t happen in my lifetime or yours.