Firebrand Theater

Daniel Pipes as a cool medium


"We totally support Mr. Pipes' right to speak on campus," says Lisa Stampnitzki, of the student group Tzedek, an affiliate of Berkeley Hillel, "but as a Jewish group we're very concerned that Hillel has chosen to sponsor him, due to the fact that he has made many anti-Muslim statements and also the fact that his organization is clamping down on academic freedom. We're concerned that Hillel's sponsorship would lend the appearance that the Jewish community supports his views."

She's referring to the controversial Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, who is appearing at the University of California at Berkeley's 523-seat Pimentel Hall. Elegantly titled "An Evening with Daniel Pipes," the event has a built-in protest factor, spiced up by its being set in the historic capital of campus unrest. Sure enough, the call has gone out for demonstrators against the "Zionist Racist." An hour before the speech is set to begin, about 200 demonstrators have already shown up to, well… heckle Pipes? Grill him? Scare him? Support him? Stop him from speaking?

This question goes to the root of Pipes' appearance and its value as theater. One of the speaker's central contentions is that American universities have become tiny gulags of radical intolerance, places where voices like his are not only (in the words of the anti-Pipes demonstrators) "not welcome," but forcibly silenced. In preparation for the dustup, Pipes has already made a last-minute change of venue and brought in his own security detail—by my count there are about 30 uniformed cops of one stripe or another milling around outside or already in the building. "I encourage those sympathetic to my message to come out and support it and me," Pipes has advised his mailing list.

As I cruise the crowd looking for troublemakers, however, the goals seem somewhat less radical. Every comment I hear is prefaced with "We support his right to speak."

"I assume he's going to [speak]," says Polly Rich, head of a group she calls September 11 Action. "I would like to help orchestrate a counter-element. I brought a few signs, I brought a Kerry button. I'd like to send a message to Pipes, saying, 'You're out soon because Bush is out soon.'"

Will she be engaging any of Pipes' supporters, who seem to be out in roughly equal numbers?

"I don't think that would be effective," she says. "I'd like to organize an effective message. It may mean getting a group with Kerry buttons to go in. I've seen this work well when you do it non-verbally. It upsets the speaker. They get a very clear message that there is a movement out there that unsettles them. With signs, through visuals, and then by walking out you can get a very clear message across without saying a word."

Nor does there appear to be much interest in a showdown from crowd members who are more sympathetic to Pipes. "I neither support him nor do I oppose him," says Seymour Kessler of the Israel action group Bridges to Israel Berkeley. "I'm here to hear what he has to say." As for the demonstrators, he says, "It's wonderful. It shows that we're living in a democracy. And it's the same in Israel. People protest what the government does, and what the government doesn't do. That's what binds the United States and Israel, a shared sense of values."

High-minded sentiments all around! But I have no such noble motives. Though I have lamented Pipes' evolution from an interesting scholar into a dependable public figure as one-dimensional and repetitive as Raymond J. Johnson Jr. or the guy who keeps losing loans to Ditech, I really couldn't give a damn about the two sides in this dull debate. I'm here to see the fur fly.

The technique is familiar enough. You cover some campus event related to Israel and Palestine, the war in Iraq, or the war on terrorism, then make a full report of any anti-American, anti-Semitic, or otherwise indecorous slogans or behavior you observe. Your report goes on the web. A nation of losers cites your report on their blogs, with outraged glosses. Fuming talk show hosts on radio and television pick up on the outrage and flesh it out with dollops of both indignation and high dudgeon. The original perpetrators of the outrage savor the exposure, and with any luck the process can be repeated again in a few weeks.

But Pipes is scheduled to go on at 7:30 p.m., and as the time approaches the crowd is alarmingly civil. Though the group features a strong contingent of women in hijabs, many or most of the Pipes opponents appear to be affiliated with A Jewish Voice for Peace, and their reasonable and good-natured behavior isn't going to make any news. I approach Lisa Stampnitzki to see if maybe the reports of extremist offenses at these kinds of gatherings are invented. "There tends to be an over-exaggeration in the way they describe these events," she allows.

No sooner have we spoken, however, than a gangly man in an Uncle Sam costume, so tall that with his top hat he appears for a moment to be on stilts, enters the crowd bearing a sign that reads "I Want You To Die For Israel." The "s" in Israel has been replaced with a clockwise swastika. "Now this is what I'm talking about," I egg on my new friend Lisa. "You've got this gentleman with the swastikas on his sign. This is what gets attention at these things."

"That's very unfortunate," she says in a tone worthy of a press conference. "At the very least it shows very poor judgment to put a swastika on a sign referring to Israel."

A moment later she confronts Uncle Sam directly. "I'd like to know why you have a swastika on that sign?" she asks.

"There's a swastika because Israel's a fascist country," Uncle Sam replies. "That's pretty obvious." He turns to the rest of us: "Anybody want to read what I have to say?" His flyer ("The Left is dominated by left-zionist Jews from Noam Chomsky on down.") is signed Joe Webb.

"You're aware that the swastika has a particular meaning—" Lisa starts to say.

"Sure. The Zionists cooperated with Hitler throughout the thirties. Zionism gave aid to dictators." He walks off with nonchalance. Lisa has gotten no satisfaction from the exchange.

But I'm not feeling so hot myself. What kind of shitheel am I? If there's one thing Lisa Stampnitzki doesn't need, it's me trying to cause trouble between her and a truculent troglodyte. And as it happens, the crowd is getting less agreeable even without my attentions.

7:30 comes and goes. Except for a series of rules laid down by the Hillel organizers (No bags or signs allowed in the building, no admittance without a ticket, no misbehavior during the speech, all attendees will be frisked), there's no indication that we'll ever be allowed in to see the U.S. Institute of Peace's newest board member.

At the far end of the Pimentel courtyard, there's an argument going on:

"…I have relatives in Israel, so you don't have to tell me how hard things are."

"So you don't think Jews should have a right of return to Israel?"

"No. Everybody should have a right of return."

"So, like, Jews who live in France should endure the anti-Semitism there instead of emigrating?"

"Anti-Semitism needs to be dealt with when it occurs. It's like racism everywhere. Ultimately, it's going to be one state for everybody there. When your grandchildren are being raised."

"Well I hope my grandchildren are born in Israel."

"So then what do you think should be done about the occupied territories?"

"I think the PA should be destroyed completely, and new leaders will rise up like Sadat in Egypt and, uh, Hussein in Jordan. But I'm also against forced transfer of Jews from the so-called West Bank and Gaza. I think that's racism."

"Any forced transfer of any people is wrong."

"Exactly, so I say 'You live in Ramallah and I live in Qiryat Arba.'"

"Well Qiryat Arba was built on land that Arabs were expelled from."

"Right, and Germans were expelled from East Prussia, so bad things happen. Millions of Pakistanis were expelled from India."

A few yards away, a guy wearing a kaffiyah as a neckerchief is shrieking in a strident monotone at a guy in a fishing hat: "If you're breaking into a man's house you deserve to be killed! They should have killed more of them!"

"And what is that man trying to do?" Fishing Cap asks.

"He's trying to keep you from breaking into his house!" the monotone shriek continues. "You deserve to be killed!"

By now I'm edging toward the door—if this event is ever going to start I want to be inside for it. A man wearing what looks like (could it be?) an old Members Only jacket is yelling at a line of Jewish Voice for Peace representatives holding signs that cite Pipes' infamous "Germanic standards of hygiene" comment.

"You're trying to shut this guy up!" Members Only shouts.

"No we're not," shouts back a JVFP rep. "We respect his right to speak. He's the one trying to shut us up with this bill."

"What bill?"

"House Resolution 3077. It would require congressional oversight of Middle East studies."

Members Only considers it for a moment. "That's a good idea," he says. "Didn't you hear about this guy in Southern California? The computer guy?"

I think he might be referring to Mike Hawash, but that guy's in Oregon. "What's his name?" I ask.

"I don't know his name."

"He doesn't bother learning the names of Arabs!" one of the JVFP people shouts.

"He was arrested!" Members Only shouts.

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.

"The totalitarian impulse is just too strong, huh?" says Pipes.

The failure of the Oslo accords, Pipes maintains, can be blamed on two factors: Palestinian duplicity and the disgruntlement of the Palestinian population. "Settlements! Settlements!" the hecklers start to chant.

"When you have a PhD from Harvard, you can speak!" a Pipes supporter shouts.

In assessing the failure of the peace process, I note that neither Pipes nor his opponents mention the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It's a rare moment where the bigotry of both finds common ground.

But interestingly, it isn't the last. When we get to Iraq, Pipes, who declared defeat a few months back, almost brings the hecklers up short. "I supported the war in Iraq, as all civilized people did," he says. "But I'm not happy with the way the situation has been going since… So I believe we should rule Iraq—excuse me, I believe we should not rule Iraq."

"Freudian slip!" a heckler shouts. "Freudian slip!"

"Isn't it interesting," Pipes says after a pause, "that the same people support militant Islam, support Palestinian suicide bombers, and support Saddam Hussein?"

"Speak for yourself! Speak for yourself!" the hecklers chant.

The section on Campus Watch rounds out the show, but by now the point has been made, with maximum grunting and sweating, that the American university is a madhouse… a madhouse! Pipes wraps promptly at nine; the hecklers rise en masse and shuffle out, shouting and ruckusing all the way. The rest of us stay seated. This can't possibly be all there is!

It's not. Our Hillel hostess announces that the professor will be answering our questions. Pipes comes out for the encore. Two women in hijabs are still in the room, seated and seemingly quiet and attentive; but by now the audience is through with nice distinctions and wants to see some of the old stuff. Four cops move in, and both women are cleansed.

Still, a few hecklers remain: When Pipes refers to a $5 million grant to Berkeley from the Sultan's Fund, the "You deserve to be killed" guy from outside stands up and starts shouting, "What about the $5 million from the Zionist lobby! Racist Jew! Racist Jew!" He gets the boot.

But the Q&A session is as perfunctory and low-protein as the speech itself. On the question of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for example, Pipes explains: "He's not a Khomeini. He's not seeking power. His agenda is not to repeat the same mistakes the Iranians made." This is the best a Middle East expert can do? I could have given that answer, and these days I spend a lot more time watching Jay Jay the Jet Plane than following the major players in Iraq.

But by now I realize I'm the real dummy—not for schlepping out to the East Bay just to see a cockfight, but for not realizing that everybody else in the room is a ringer. Pipes himself, the hecklers, the supporters—they're all here to put on the same show. If it hadn't been for the constant interruptions, Pipes' performance would have been the biggest nothing to hit California since Webvan.

I do, on the other hand, have a more refined appreciation of the Pipes method. I realize now that it was pointless to regret his passing as a serious scholar—to feel this way is to take too literally his persona as a tough-talking firebrand. Pipes is much closer to the grand tradition that stretches from Jack Paar to Regis Philbin and beyond: a low-impact, low-information, soft-edged performer, a channeler of looniness rather than a creator of it. At Berkeley, his act was refined to its core. He's a mild-mannered Bob Newhart in a world full of Mr. Carlins.