Firebrand Theater

Daniel Pipes as a cool medium

(Page 4 of 5)

I bully my way toward the front of the line. Just before my frisking, I catch the evening's only overtly anti-American gesture. The guy in front of me is trying to bring an American flag into Pimentel Hall. One of the cops takes it from him, drops it on the ground, and contemptuously toes it into a corner. "You can pick it up on the way out, if it's still here," he says.

Inside, the lecture hall is slowly filling up. A guy sitting behind me is impressing his Pipes fandom on a friend: "He's a great speaker! It's not like he says any stuff like we should kill all the Palestinians. He never says anything like that."

A few minutes later, punctuating a lull in the audience din, he shouts, "PIPES, baby!"

What a tool! But then, who am I to be scoffing? I'm almost as excited to see Pipes as he is. He's still young; he doesn't know any better. Where did I go wrong, that leaving my family alone for an entire evening so I can endure a completely predictable political spectacle is my idea of excitement?

It's 8:10, and still no sign of Pipes. What is this guy, The Stones? There's no excuse for this kind of tardiness. (According to the program, we end promptly at 9:00) Or rather, there is a self-fulfilling excuse—that the appearance is so fraught with risk, that Pipes' opponents are so vile and volatile, that we need a Presidential-scale security delay before the unassuming thinker can even show his face.

The crowd is getting restless. Even with the ban on signs, you can get a pretty good sense of the audience composition. The hecklers are self-segregated on the right side of the auditorium, and I'd guess they make up about a third of the total audience. Based on sound volume, I'd say the overt Pipes supporters slightly outnumber the hecklers. Jewish Voice for Peace t-shirts are liberally distributed throughout the audience.

Around 8:25, a Hillel representative addresses the audience: The delay was necessary for security reasons. We have a very full house, so please close up any gaps. Singles, raise your hands. After the speech, Pipes will answer questions submitted in writing; notecards will now be distributed. Just a few more minutes.

Like some passionless Peter Shaffer hero, I'm starting to feel a grudging envy of the hecklers and their uncomplicated zeal. With less than 35 minutes to squeeze in Pipes' entire speech, the Q&A session will obviously be an abbreviated joke. We're meant to sit passively and let Pipes do all the talking, then shuffle back to our lives of miserable obscurity. If you're interested in engaging Pipes in an exchange of ideas, doing so politely at the end of the speech is clearly a mug's game; interrupting him at every turn looks increasingly like the only sensible course.

At last, the big man enters, oozing wooly professorial style. He wears a gray suit with flat lapels, a muted maroon tie and a dull white shirt. The flaps of his jacket pockets protrude at right angles, and his shoulders are hunched. It's a look less confrontational than harried, less defiant than distracted; and as the hecklers raise the volume in a preemptive jeering attack, Pipes' quiet tone immediately makes him a sympathetic figure. One man has managed to smuggle in a sign ("Pipes is a racist"), and stands up showing it. Pipes glares at him and remains silent as the cops escort the guy out. The cheers move from one side of the audience to the other like a hokey stereo demonstration: The hecklers cheer the guy when he stands up, then yield to the anti-hecklers, who cheer more lustily as the bum's rush is completed. There will be more bum's rushes, a steady winnowing of hecklers, as the speech goes on.

"Tonight I'd like to discuss four topics," Pipes says: "The war on terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, and Campus Watch." The first topic gets its first robust round of hisses when Pipes refines the definition to "War on Militant Islam." Boos and applause break out in tandem, followed by screams and scolding. The Pipes fan behind me shouts "Free speech! Free speech!" If you've ever been in a movie where one half of the audience is trying to shush the other, you know that the good citizens are as bad as the bad ones, both collectively raising the noise level. "I see censorship exists not only in the Palestinian Authority, but in the academic halls of Berkeley," Pipes puts in, capping the outbreak with a new round of cheers and applause.

"Militant Islam," Pipes begins to sum up, "is misanthropic, misogynistic, triumphalist, millennialist, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, suicidal..." As the adjectives pile up, so do the catcalls. By the end of the sentence the hecklers are in open rebellion. "Since some of you did not hear that," says Pipes, "I'll repeat it, more slowly. Militant Islam is misanthropic, misogynistic, triumphalist..."

Another point, another interruption. "It's so satisfying," says Pipes, "to see one's points demonstrated so quickly."

Which, it's becoming clear, is how the passive aggressive performance works. Even a minor level of noise will prompt Pipes to clam up, letting the heckling grow (and giving the cops a moment to eject a heckler or two). Only occasionally do the taunts rise to a full-on thugs' veto, but Pipes wears a permanent look of wounded stoniness. And even when there's no noise at all, Pipes will pause for a few beats, creating an awkward silence and giving the interruptions—at least half of which are coming from his own supporters—a chance to gather steam.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is dispatched in a few sentences. "What about the Palestinians?" a woman interjects.

"Throw them out!" a man responds.

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