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Following months of controversy, Dinesh D’Souza speaks to packed auditorium

Controversial right-wing filmmaker discussed racism, fascism

EVAN PENG / The Stanford Daily

When Dinesh D’Souza took the stage after months of funding drama, student backlash and dueling Daily op-eds, he was greeted by cheers and a standing, if partial, ovation.

Approximately 15 minutes into the event, he was also greeted by a steadily strengthening odor that audience members speculated was a stink bomb. Members of the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) — who hosted the event — confirmed such reports to The Daily after the event. Stanford University Department of Public Safety members on the scene removed an audience member midway through the event, but declined to answer any further questions. 

Controversy surrounding D’Souza, who spoke Thursday on what he sees as historical and present racism in the Democratic Party, has been ongoing since November, when The Daily reported on a leaked application to fund his visit. The latest in a series of right-wing speakers to highlight the tension between free speech and campus inclusion, D’Souza — a policy advisor to the Reagan administration, a former Hoover Institution fellow and a pardoned felon — is famous for his bestselling books, films and an incendiary Twitter account where he has retweeted hashtags including #burnthejews and #bringbackslavery.

(MATT SHIMURA/Special to The Daily)

‘A swirling current of accusation’

D’Souza described his Thursday lecture as being centered around “a swirling current of accusation aimed against Republicans and conservatives.” D’Souza apologized for some of his most controversial statements, including retweeting the hashtags #burnthejews and #bringbackslavery, tweets that he alleged were originally posted by fake accounts, “a booby trap” set for him by the left.

However, he doubled down on his core thesis that the Democratic Party, both past and present, is the source of racism and fascism in American society. Students and professors who believe otherwise, D’Souza argued, have been deceived by a curriculum of “progressive history.”

D’Souza cited comparisons between the Jim Crow laws of the American South and the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, saying that the Nazis used the ideas of Southern Democrats as a “template.” Both sets of laws imposed segregation, forbade intermarriage and condoned confiscation of property, D’Souza said, arguing that to get from one set to the other, the Nazis only had to “cross out” the word “black” and replace it with “Jewish.”

He also made a case for Democrats as “the party of slavery that metamorphosed into the party of racism.” To support his argument, D’Souza mentioned the “crushing fact” that no Republicans owned slaves. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party, and Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president.

D’Souza further said that the “party switch” of the early 20th century did not occur, naming recent scandals involving Virginian governor Ralph Northam and his wife as proof. Northam has come under fire for a 1980s photo of the then-medical student in blackface; his wife made headlines just this week for allegedly offering raw cotton to a group of black students on a tour of the governor’s mansion and asking them to imagine what it would be like to pick it.

The lecture, delivered to an audience composed largely of non-students and peppered with bright red “Make America Great Again” hats, drew frequent applause, especially in the moments when D’Souza mentioned President Donald Trump and the “streak of bullying and intimidation and intolerance coming from the left.”

In a question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks, he directly invited “hostile” questions, and the audience responded. Questioners challenged D’Souza on the use of eminent domain to build a wall, D’Souza’s statements denying the party switch and his use of his Indian heritage as a diversity card.

To the question on his Indian heritage, the final query of the night, D’Souza responded, to audience applause: “It’s possible for anyone to be a racist.”

‘Be tolerant, accept racism’

In the hours, days, weeks and months leading up to D’Souza’s visit, SCR, the University and the speaker himself drew campus ire.

While D’Souza spoke to an audience of hundreds in CEMEX Auditorium, across campus at the Markaz, the Stanford chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted a discussion on “A People’s History of Racism,” advertised in direct opposition to the D’Souza lecture.

The event spanned subjects ranging from the roots of structural racism to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Bridging the variety of topics was an acknowledgement of the polarized political dialogue on campus and a commitment to change.

“I know that everything feels really dire right now,” said SJP member Zaeda Blotner ’21. “Our tuition dollars, or at least my tuition dollars, are being used so that a man can stand up in front of a bunch of people and gaslight us, tell them that the pain that we feel is not valid and the atrocities that have been committed against us did not occur and do not continue to occur.”

Thursday morning, student activists in Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP) hung a banner accusing SCR and Provost Persis Drell of “accept[ing] racism” in an attempt to “be tolerant” of free speech on campus.

“Administrators refused to take responsibility for student safety and stand up to racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and intellectual dishonesty,” SLAP wrote in a statement to The Daily, which went on to call various University administrators “all complicit and facilitators of yet another act of hate speech on campus.”

University spokesperson EJ Miranda told The Daily that Drell “defends the right of students to express their opinions, including when they are expressing frustration toward her” and that she “welcomes meeting with students on this issue.”

“We reiterate that Stanford deeply values both diversity of thought as well as the dignity of all peoples,” wrote Drell and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole in a Daily op-ed published Wednesday. “We know all too well that some expression can be, and has been, deeply hurtful to members of our community.”

Students have also vandalized and torn down posters hung in various student residences to advertise D’Souza’s lecture, and two fall quarter petitions opposing D’Souza’s invitation garnered hundreds of signatures each.

‘Funding bigotry’

Student activism opposing D’Souza’s visit comes in the wake of months of back-and-forth among the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) student government over whether or not the Undergraduate Senate would fund the event — debates which underscore both the powers and limitations of the 15 elected undergraduates, nearly all of whom are sophomores serving their first terms.

Last November, the Senate declined SCR’s request to fund D’Souza’s visit on the grounds that the $6,000 request included $1,624 for alcohol. SCR disputed the Senate’s rationale, calling it an excuse to “make it impossible for conservative ideas to be publicly expressed at Stanford,” according to SCR treasurer Ben Esposito ’21.

In an “emergency” meeting nearly two weeks later, Senators doubled down on their decision, defying an internal review from the ASSU financial manager that would have funded over half of SCR’s request.

In response, SCR filed a suit with the Constitutional Council, the judicial branch of the ASSU. The suit alleges that the Senate discriminated against conservative viewpoints by denying D’Souza funding, citing a committee meeting in which Senators opposed the event on the grounds that they did not want to fund “bigotry.”

However, one day before the suit could make it to Council proceedings, the Senate reversed its decision and accepted the internal review. Council members found the next day that the Senate’s change of heart meant SCR’s suit had “no underlying grievance,” and the scheduled Council vote on its frivolity never occurred.

Over a month later, the Senate voted again on D’Souza: This time, 9-0 to pass a resolution condemning his invitation while being careful to maintain their neutrality as a funding body.

“Although we are funding this event, we are not in support of both past activities and actions of Dinesh D’Souza,” said bill co-author Senator Martin Altenburg ’21 in the Senate’s Feb. 5 meeting. “We support an environment in which there is a free exchange of ideas, but it should be done in a culture of mutual respect, civility and dignity, and we feel that there’s kind of a breach of that aspect with this event.”

‘One of the more fearless leaders out there’

Editorials published this week in The Daily have accused D’Souza of “buil[ding] a career out of homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic speech.” One author called him an “ideological charlatan,” while another attacked his detractors as “puerile, insipid, aspiring authoritarians.”

In D’Souza’s words, however, he is “one of the more fearless leaders out there”: a “provocateur” aiming not to enrage but to educate.

“I am a provocateur in that I’m taking what a lot of people consider history and I’m going to show that what is often considered history is in fact progressive history,” D’Souza asserted.

Born in India, D’Souza came to the States to study English at Dartmouth College, where he told The Daily he recognized and consolidated his conservative beliefs.

At Dartmouth, D’Souza wrote and edited for The Dartmouth Review, where, according to the College’s newspaper The Dartmouth, he in 1981 published an article outing five officers of Dartmouth’s Gay/Straight Association.

In his interview with The Daily, D’Souza categorically denied involvement in the incident. However, when asked about other controversial occurrences — such as a Feb. 2018 tweet he shared which mocked Parkland survivors — D’Souza expressed a mixture of regret and defensiveness.  

While he described the Parkland tweet as a total “misfire,” he also defended his actions, saying that his intended target was not the students, but rather the media. D’Souza went on to state that it is normal to “say a couple of things you didn’t mean” in the “heat of the debate.” However, for the most part he stands by his controversial tweets, stating that they “reflect [his] actual views.”

D’Souza’s views have been well-documented in a series of best-selling books and films, including 2010’s “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” — adapted into the film 2016: “Obama’s America” — and the 2012 book-turned-documentary-style-film, “Hillary’s America.” His most recent entry, the 2018 film “Death of a Nation,” compares Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln to argue that the Democratic Party is the party of racism and fascism.

D’Souza is no stranger to Stanford University. After stints in the Reagan administration and American Enterprise Institute, D’Souza was a fellow at the Hoover Institution from 2001 to 2007. He is also a fixture on the conservative campus lecture circuit, where he sparked protests at his alma mater this year as part of the Young America Foundation’s “D’Souza Unchained” tour.

“I feel that I have ideas that students don’t know about,” he told The Daily.

He is drawn to speak on college campuses in order to combat what he laments as increasing campus intolerance and waning “intellectual diversity” on college campuses.

“[Universities] have championed diversity while undermining the most important kind of diversity in a university context: namely, philosophical or intellectual diversity,” D’Souza said.  

When asked by The Daily about whether or not other types of diversity, such as diversity of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexuality, age, gender and religion, can lead to increasing intellectual diversity, D’Souza responded that he does not believe there is a “necessary connection.”

On Thursday, D’Souza called for conservative students at Stanford and across the country to speak up, condemning the “intellectual gangsterism” he believes emanates from the left.

“Intellectual freedom means fighting against the people who are blocking you from being able to think for yourself,” he said. “I submit, at the end of the day, that’s not Dinesh D’Souza … that’s the bullying elements who are around you every day, who will make your life hell if you want to be nothing more than what you should be, which is in fact an intellectually liberated you.”

 

Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu, Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu and Zora Ilunga-Reed at zora814 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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