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Healy Hall at Georgetown University. (Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images)

On Decency and Double Standards at Georgetown

Do apologies mean anything anymore? Consider the case of Ilya Shapiro.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days about a tweet by a Georgetown professor.

Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement.

All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.

That tweet was written in 2018 by Georgetown professor Carol Christine Fair about Republican senators who supported Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Fair also writes a blog called Tenacious Hellpussy, which she describes as “a nasty woman posting from the frontlines of fuckery.” There she notes: “Cunty women get shit done.” 

I fully agree, though I might call it chutzpah. For evidence, we need look no further than Fair herself.

When asked to apologize or explain her policy recommendation of mass castration and death she said this: “I will not use civil words to describe mass incivility.” She added: “Don't expect me to. It’s an absurd request. I will use words that make you as uncomfortable as I am with this regime.”

Though Twitter temporarily suspended her, Fair’s chutzpah here paid off where it mattered: Georgetown defended Fair’s right to speak. “The views faculty members expressed in their private capacities are their own and not the views of the university. Our policy does not prohibit speech based on the person presenting ideas or the content of those ideas even when those ideas may be difficult, controversial or objectionable.” Fair continues to teach at Georgetown.

Hold Fair’s tweet in your mind as you consider the story, still unfolding, of constitutional law scholar Ilya Shapiro.

Shapiro is a Soviet emigré and highly regarded scholar who, until last week, seemed like a perfect match for the job as executive director at the Georgetown Center of the Constitution. He was scheduled to start February 1. But late at night, on January 26, he took to Twitter to express his disapproval of President Biden’s pledge to appoint only a black woman to fill Justice Breyer’s seat on the Supreme Court. Now, his career is on the line.

Here’s what Shapiro wrote: 

Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn't fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?

Because Biden said he's only consider[ing] black women for SCOTUS, his nominee will always have an asterisk attached. Fitting that the Court takes up affirmative action next term.

Many others wrote similar tweets the same day, expressing outrage at the president’s promise to reserve the seat for someone of a specific race and gender. Andrew Sullivan, for example, put the objection this way: “The replacement will be chosen only after the field is radically winnowed by open race and sex discrimination, which have gone from being illegal to being celebrated and practiced by a president of the United States.”

But instead of expressing disappointment that the president had made clear that his priority would be to choose a black woman—not the best candidate, whatever that person’s race or sex—Shapiro’s inartful phrasing indicated that the president’s pledge would hand us a “lesser black woman.”

Led by a Slate journalist, the Twitter mob did what Twitter mobs do and stoked the intended result: In an email to the school the dean called Shapiro’s tweets “appalling” and “at odds with everything we stand for at Georgetown Law.”

Then Shapiro, who had already deleted the tweet, sent an apology addressed to the Dean William Treanor and the entire Georgetown community: 

“I sincerely and deeply apologize for some poorly drafted tweets I posted late Wednesday night,” he wrote. 

“Issues of race are of course quite sensitive, and debates over affirmative action are always fraught. My intent was to convey my opinion that excluding potential Supreme Court candidates . . . simply because of their race or gender, was wrong and harmful to the long term reputation of the Court. It was not to cast aspersions on the qualifications of a whole group of people, let alone question their worth as human beings. A person’s dignity and worth simply do not, and should not, depend on any immutable characteristic. Those who know me know that I am sincere about these sentiments, and I would be more than happy to meet with any of you who have doubts about the quality of my heart.”

But apologies and contrition are no longer enough, it seems. On Friday, the Black Law Students Association, speaking on behalf of a dozen student groups, wrote to insist that the school rescind Shapiro’s job offer among many other demands. That’s because these days, sincere apologies do not function as expressions of regret but as confessions of guilt. 

No doubt, as Professor Shapiro’s job remains in the balance, we’ll hear more demands for further genuflection. He should adamantly refuse. Instead, he should point out the following.

First, the view that President Joe Biden should hire a replacement for Justice Breyer’s seat based on merit and not identity is not some fringe position. It is one shared by 76% of Americans. According to a new ABC/Ipsos poll, more than three-quarters of Americans say they want Biden to consider “all possible nominees.” Only 23% want President Biden to “consider only nominees who are Black women, as he has pledged to do.” 

Shapiro has admitted that his tweets were “poorly drafted,” and they were. But it was obvious to anyone reading him in good faith that what he intended to say was that Biden should pick the most qualified person for the job. This is to say nothing of the fact that the judge Shapiro said was “objectively the best pick” would make another kind of history: Sri Srinivasan would be the first Indian-American on the Court. 

The second thing Shapiro ought to point out is the case of Professor Fair. Her statement about feeding castrated corpses to pigs inspired a defense of free speech from the school. Shapiro’s tweet—which he deleted and apologized for—was called “appalling.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has thankfully stepped in to the Shapiro brouhaha to remind the university of its stated principles, urging Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor, “to use this controversy as an opportunity to reinforce Georgetown’s laudable commitment to freedom of expression.” But the galling double standard here reveals that, increasingly, mainstream conservative views at American universities are seen as a violation of HR rules in and of themselves. And I mean this quite literally: More than a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their beliefs.

I have never met Ilya Shapiro, though we have various mutual friends who attest to his character and to his sincere regret on this score. And I have no doubt that if Georgetown decides to break their contract and fire him before he’s even begun he will somehow land on his feet. 

But the tragic reality here—what the cases Fair and Shapiro show—is that there is no reward for being decent or admitting regret or apologizing. In our increasingly graceless culture, decency can be a one-way ticket to exile.  

I called Shapiro to see if he sees things that way. I asked him if he regrets apologizing. He told me no. “The right thing to do is just the right thing to do.”

I also reached out to Fair. She said she didn’t know about anything about the case, but added: “In general, I believe that the only response to speech one doesn’t like is more speech and I decry cancel culture on any side.” She suggested I should reach out to FIRE, an “organization, whose efforts I support.”

Let’s see if Georgetown has the courage to do the right thing: Accept Ilya Shapiro’s apology and move on.

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