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A Flag That Won’t Go Away

Maxim Shusteff

As I watch the controversy surrounding Jonathan Goler’s Israeli flag continue to develop, I am left with one major question: what is the message that MIT’s administration wants to send? Two likely answers suggest themselves, neither painting MIT in a good light.

The first possibility is that MIT Housing is simply trying to assert control over an unexpectedly difficult situation. It’s clear that Mr. Goler’s strong resistance to the demands to take down his flag was unanticipated, and this has led Housing to impose extreme and blindly authoritarian measures to enforce its decision so that it doesn’t appear weak and ineffective. Subsequent arguments by Housing, and suddenly scrupulous enforcement of a campus-wide “no flags” rule are all part of the package. This is what The Tech’s editorial of Sept. 26 [“Flags and Freedom”] referred to as the “quick-fix” method of dealing with the situation, and rightly condemned this ill-advised approach.

This is most likely why such easy and immediate support for Mr. Goler has emerged among students, who see this as an example of the administration using a very blunt tool to solve a minor problem that requires delicacy and finesse. While Housing can make and enforce reasonable rules in the interests of safety and building integrity, students see this particular situation for what it is: a wrong-headed effort to exercise authority that has turned into a broadly-applied limitation on students’ rights to self-expression. This doesn’t speak well for MIT Housing’s ability to make good decisions because it suggests that the message administrators are trying to send is: “We make the rules around here, and everyone had better follow them.” But this is not nearly the whole story.

As The Tech noted, to most campus observers “the issue at hand is not the politics of Israel.” Indeed, Housing officials have claimed that this is not censorship, and what truly concerns them is safety. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, such a position ignores a crucial detail to which Housing attributes no importance, but which makes all the difference in this case. This detail has surfaced every time S-P Assistant Housemaster Keith Hampton has been interviewed, such as when he admitted to the Chronicle of Higher Education that the entire affair began when a group of students came to him to complain that the Israeli flag was offensive to them and “interfered with their ability to enjoy the use of the courtyard.”

I can only assume that the students must have been referring to the chronic neck pains they suffered as a result of continually craning their necks up to stare with derision at Mr. Goler’s flag hanging nine stories above. In all seriousness, however, what is particularly appalling is that Mr. Hampton proceeded to ask Mr. Goler to remove his flag for exactly this reason, citing the bigoted complaint to him and actually suggesting that it was a legitimate reason to request the flag’s removal.

Only after Mr. Goler’s pointed refusal to comply with this gross display of intolerance was a “fire safety” issue cited. Then, up through the chain of authority in MIT Housing, various individuals threw a string of ever-changing “rules” at Mr. Goler, including fire codes that his flag turned out not to violate, publicity policies that were inapplicable, and approval procedures that never happened for other flags on campus. Housing Director Karen Nilsson finally settled on calling the flag an “unauthorized alteration to the physical condition of the building.” She continues to emphasize the fact that such modifications jeopardize the structural integrity of the building and actually expects us to take seriously the idea that a flag might potentially damage the building by “banging” against it, and poses a safety hazard because it might fall from the building and land on someone. Yes, that’s right.

The conclusion is blindingly obvious: Ms. Nilsson and the rest of MIT Housing insist on this patently absurd explanation because they are unwilling to break ranks on Mr. Hampton’s initial move against the flag. It is understandable that Housing would seek to present a unified front on flag policy, and to support one of its own officials. However, this cannot be done across the board and in all cases. What Mr. Hampton did by bringing the complaint to Mr. Goler and giving it his official sanction was at best exceedingly thoughtless, and at worst downright bigoted. If he had asked that the flag be removed purely for safety reasons, without mentioning the complaint, Mr. Goler would be hard-pressed to prove political censorship, and Housing would have a rock-solid case. However, because Mr. Hampton openly stated, both to Mr. Goler and to various media outlets, that someone had objected to the flag, he did exactly the wrong thing: he brought politics into the picture.

That is the key point on which everything rests, and that is why this whole affair is indeed about the politics of Israel. No matter how hard anyone tries, Mr. Hampton’s initial mistake cannot be undone -- politics is irreversibly attached. By supporting Mr. Hampton’s stance against Mr. Goler’s flag, while doing nothing to acknowledge the problematic nature of the original complaint, MIT Housing, with Ms. Nilsson at the fore, grants legitimacy to intolerance and political censorship.

It is precisely for this reason that Mr. Goler is resisting so forcefully. He is doing this because the underlying reason for the controversy with his flag is not being addressed, and instead we are forced to witness a farce in which several square feet of fabric present physical dangers to a nine-story building. It is because this whole situation encourages other bigots to go around screaming abusive epithets outside other windows with Israeli flags in them, shouting that Zionism is racism and that some white sheets would go well with those flags.

Exactly this happened two weeks ago at Bexley, where two Israeli flags have been hanging for years. Rather than allow the Bexley flags to continue hanging, thereby lessening the power of such naked expressions of hatred, Ms. Nilsson has instead set her sights on these flags as well, in her crusade to bring down any and all flags. To those who harbor such hatred for the sight of any nation’s flags, MIT is saying: “We would rather stifle political expression, than offend your twisted sensibilities.”

I am sure that this is not a message that MIT wants to send. This is not a manifestation of a “community [that] draws strength and joy from its diversity” and has “a broad tolerance for speech, humor and thought,” as President Vest wrote a few days ago in a message to students. In order to affirm MIT’s commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive environment, the right thing for the administration to do is to drop the matter immediately, and allow the flying of flags from windows. A reprimand to Mr. Hampton for his inappropriate handling of the situation would also be a constructive move.

Unfortunately, the longer MIT Housing maintains their untenable position, the more difficult it becomes to admit to mistakes, and reverse their course. If no one in Housing has the good sense and vision to do this, let us hope that such good sense can be found at some higher level within the administration. If not, we will witness a victory for bigots at MIT.

Maxim Shusteff is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.