Recently David Horowitz was disinvited from a speaking engagement at St. Louis University. The story has been widely reported. Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Minding the Campus, among others, have taken note. The story has an interesting angle, in that the AAUP—not usually on the same side of issues as Horowitz—has come to his defense, as has the left-leaning College Freedom blogger John K. Wilson.
We also deplore the narrow-minded and unjustified action by the St. Louis University administration. But since the news is already out, we thought we would go behind the headlines to what is really happening at St. Louis University. Our scholarly investigation takes us back a whole century...
Florence Pretz was a visionary. In one of her dreams a small mysterious creature with pointed ears and great wisdom revealed himself to her. This was before George Lucas’s Star Wars, and the creature was not named Yoda. He was the great Billiken. His carved likeness is now to be found in many places. In 1909 Nome, Alaska, an Iñupiaq carver named “Happy Jack” Angokwazhuk initiated the trade in ivory Billikens. Billiken soon found his way to Kobe, Japan where he was first ensconced in the Chinju and Matsuo shrines. In 1912, he achieved lasting fame as the American “God of Things As They Ought To Be” in Luna Park in Osaka.
Mrs. Pretz was not just a visionary, but also an entrepreneur, and patented the Billiken in 1908. No word on how the God of Things As They Ought To Be regarded being reduced to Pretz’s intellectual property. But Pretz was a good agent for the little deity. Noting the success of the Teddy Bear as an embodiment of the adventurous spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, Pretz named her ur-Yoda after the new president, William Howard Taft. She marketed Billiken dolls which enjoyed a brief vogue. Billiken banks, like piggy banks, swallowed up children’s pennies, which might otherwise have been spent on Billiken Marshmallow treats, not to be confused with Billiken pickle forks.
The Billiken figure is long forgotten in most places but has achieved a certain immortality in Mrs. Pretz’s hometown, St. Louis, where he is the mascot of St. Louis University. His statue stands—or rather sits—in front of Chaifetz Arena. It may seem a bit unusual to have a pagan deity enshrined on the campus of a Jesuit University, but the university has a good cover story. It is said that a St. Louis football coach of the time, John Bender, resembled the imp. The university’s mythographers debate who first enunciated the resemblance.
We suspect this idolatry is at the root of the censorship of David Horowitz. In effect, SLU asked the God of Things As They Ought To Be whether the student-scheduled "Evening with David Horowitz: Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights" should be allowed to proceed. Billiken wiggled his ten little piggies and furrowed his brow, and spoke with the voice of the Dean of Students, Scott Smith, Ph.D. He said that the university should not allow Horowitz to speak because he would "insinuate…that all people of the Islamic faith are fascists" and that such a message would conflict with the schools' mission.
Billiken cocked his pointy ears forward and offered an official “university statement,” expressing “concern” that having Horowitz there “could be viewed as attacking another faith and seeking to cause derision on campus.” University officials channeling Billiken added that it would be more in keeping with the university’s “Jesuit mission and values” if the students were to “engage scholars with expertise on historical and theological aspects of Islam to help prepare their program.”
Now we need some additional context to unravel this. Why should St. Louis University be so concerned about the representation of Islam? David Horowitz himself has firmly and repeatedly denied that he attacks Muslims in general or equates Islam as a whole with Islamo-fascism. He responded to the dis-invitation by emailing Dean Smith that, "The views attributed to me are not views that I hold. The claim that I insinuate that all people of Islamic faith are fascists is a malicious falsehood. I ask you to familiarize yourself with what I have actually said and done and to reconsider and then rescind your ban."
The University is now dangling the story that it was misunderstood and never really disinvited Horowitz. The doubling back and swerving from one version to another is, in fact, strong evidence that Billiken is scripting the responses of the SLU administration.
This is understandable in light of Billiken’s long commitment to multiculturalism and diversity. Remember Happy Jack the Eskimo? The Luna Park effigy in Osaka? The William Howard Taft pickle forks? (A nice touch; Taft himself was more likely to consume the whole pickle barrel.) Billiken represents the spirit of bland acceptance of all difference, and has no room for someone like Horowitz who relentlessly points out that there are a great many fanatics in the Muslim world who detest America and would as soon kill us as make peace. That’s not a message that sits easily with the folks who believe that their job is to inspire students to be “global citizens.”
One might think a Catholic university would be alert to some cultural and historical distinctions. Islam and Christianity have quite distinct trajectories and animating purposes. Engaging “scholars with expertise on historical and theological aspects of Islam,” is one way to find out about that. Watching footage of the World Trade Center collapsing is another. Giving David Horowitz a hearing is yet another.
Horowitz was invited by two student groups, the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, to speak on October 13. One student, Danny Laub, issued the invitation and appears to have been the person most eager to get him to campus. Laub spent two months working with the SLU administration trying to navigate its opaque rules on outside speakers.
It is important to try to understand the university’s own view of this matter. SLU projects a rather light-hearted view of campus life. The semester highlight so far was the Golf Cart Parade. Dean of Students Scott Smith engages freshmen with events such as a trip to the zoo followed by a stop at Fitz’s Root beer in the Delmar Loop. When he was appointed in 2007, Dean Smith declared:
Getting involved with campus clubs, organizations, and activities is equally as important to student satisfaction and success. College life is great because it’s filled with many choices the STUDENT gets to make.
But those activities appear to stop with golf carts and root beer. And the “choices” definitely don’t include hearing from someone passionately concerned about the vulnerability of American universities which seem to invite radical Islam in but disinvite those who warn about it.
It is hard to know how deeply other SLU administrators are involved. Smith has been the face of the SLU administration on this matter so far. His views of higher education therefore seem apropos to the matter. In speaking of his goals for SLU in 2007 he commented, "Part of the ethos of care is how do we engage diversity on our campus, where folks are free not to feel marginalized but to feel open and welcome." He was also at the time concerned with the question, "How do you keep students at the center of the conversation?"
This wouldn’t be the first time in American higher education that the effort to “engage diversity” turned out to mean, “Shut up. We don’t want to hear your offensive opinions.” As far as keeping students at the “center of the conversation,” SLU has effectively told students that the conversation is over.
Billiken is God of Things As They Ought To Be—the god of wishful thinking. SLU owes its students a better deity.