Harvard Rejects Veritas in the Name of Tolerance

Rich Policz

September 1, 2006

“White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.”

—G.K. Chesterton from his poem Lepanto

“We should not be thinking of how we can kill, rather we should think about how we can live and coexist together.”
—Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami at his September 10, 2006 speech at Harvard University

“Hezbollah is like a shining sun which warms up all oppressed Muslims, especially those in Palestine and Lebanon”
—Mohammed Khatami in a July 16, 2006 message to Hezbollah’s leader

On the eve of the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Harvard University invited former Iranian President Mohamed Khatami to speak on “The Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence”. The absurdity of that invitation compels me to think of the Harvard crest, and the word Veritas emblazoned upon it. Veritas means verity or truth in Latin. Yet, while Harvardians proudly wear their crests and symbols, the University blindly forfeited their meaning.

I’m sure Harvard’s motivation falls somewhere between free speech and political activism. Given some of the leftist, anti-Israel (paging Stephen Walt), anti-military (ROTC) speech and action spewing forth from Harvard of late, it is not surprising that they have welcomed Khatami with open arms. “Do we listen to those that we disagree with, and vigorously challenge them, or do we close our ears completely?” asked Dean David Ellwood in a Boston Globe interview defending the invitation. Were the question a sincere one, I’d applaud it. However, giving someone’s speech the title of “The Ethics of Tolerance” and elevating tolerance as a virtue does not necessarily encourage “vigorous challenges.”

In his speech Khatami spoke of “ending the cycle of violence”, and other puppy dog and rainbow niceties. He assured the audience that Iran would offer the world no problems with their nuclear program. Yet even in the fountains of peace, love, and understanding there were undercurrents of militant Islam’s typical intransigence. He criticized the “imperialism” of the United States. He praised Hezbollah’s fight for Lebanon and criticized Israel. Of course the Harvard faithful were not rallied to “vigorously challenge” him on these obvious matters. However, their hackles were raised by the specter of Islam’s execution of homosexuals. Khatami said: “Homosexuality is a crime in Islam and crimes are punishable.” The Harvard Crimson described the vigorous defense against such intolerant speech thusly: “The audience responded with silence to his remark.”

It is interesting that in Harvard’s history there has been debate as to whether or not to use Veritas in its symbolism. Now, when the use of the symbol is unquestioned, the word itself has become meaningless. Harvard is not interested in truth, for truth asks one to make distinctions. Truth demands that there is right and wrong. Truth does not create middle ground; it draws lines. Truth is not inclusive, it is exclusive, and not all who pursue it will arrive at it.

Harvard and much of “higher” education has sacrificed truth on the altar of tolerance. They have become so vehement in their zeal for tolerance that they will invite the man who, in 1999, presided over the capture and torture of students at Teheran University. Where was his tolerance then? What of his praise and support of Hezbollah or his criticism and hatred of Israel? A great “peacemaker” like Khatami ought to have sought to “build a bridge” and “coexist peacefully” with Israel. Harvard has looked the other way on these matters, preferring their fantastical dream of enlightened peace, over the cold stark realities of human nature and politics.

The first casualty of a rejection of truth is the ability to make judgments. Without some standard of truth it becomes impossible to judge the actions of man and nations. This is troublesome because history has shown the depravity of man and the horrors of tyrants. Yet, if one’s only virtue is tolerance, then we must learn to live with and accept all manner of men, nations, and their multitude of sins (if such things even exist). In point of fact, the only villains on this world would be those wearing offensive and judgmental slogans such as Veritas

Khatami has said: “We are seeking a peaceful use of nuclear technology.” and if we are to accept moral equivalency, then we should take him at his word. Even if he is lying (if lies exist), how can we, when we have stripped ourselves of the standard of truth, condemn it? Yet, even the rhetoric and past actions of this paragon of the ethics of tolerance have shown him to be (gasp) intolerant. Yet, without truth and in the pursuit of a utopia where we all just get along, I suppose even this trespass can be forgiven.

Moral equivalency is moral bankruptcy. To pretend otherwise is a naïve kind of “happy talk” nihilism; the kind of nihilism at which a vast number of university professors in the United States seem to excel. The problem is that the nihilism of our enemies in this world is not naïve. It is studied, practiced, engrained and serious. We “tolerate” it at our peril.

Once in its storied history, Harvard lost sight of the Veritas crest. Today it has lost sight of its meaning. Veritas ought to be handed over as a motto for those who actually understand its critical importance, or failing that, it should be put back in that dusty drawer with the distant hope that someone will discover it, and its meaning, again someday.

Rich Policz is a 1997 graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. He is a freelance writer and teaches philosophy at Ashland Christian School.