Bright Neocon Years

Remembering Jamie Kirchick and Eliana Johnson’s college hijinks

Every Yale student is, almost by definition, a weirdo — it’s hard to gain admission otherwise. So an undergrad who becomes infamous on Yale’s campus is a special sort — for example, Jamie Kirchick, class of 2006.

Kirchick was a year below me at Yale. He was one of the school’s most prominent conservative students in the early aughts; a columnist for the Yale Daily News, he was active in many campus conservative groups, including the Middle East Forum at Yale. This (now defunct) club was run by Eliana Johnson, also ’06. Kirchick and Johnson were a gruesome twosome. They belonged to an organization called Yale Students for Democracy (now defunct as well), whose goal was not to champion democracy but rather to cheerlead for the invasion of Iraq on a campus where anti-war sentiment ran strong. Kirchick and Johnson gained national attention as freshmen when they wrote a disdainful article for Frontpage Magazine about an anti-war teach-in.

That article is worth briefly revisiting as a reminder of the over-the-top political triumphalism that greeted the war in the spring of 2003. “On the evening of the historic day that Baghdad fell, Yale held a forum of professorial invective against the statesmanship that brought it about,” Johnson and Kirchick wrote. “Yale’s anti-war ‘teach-in’ shed light on the divide between the hawks and the doves that grows as American success in Iraq increases. While pro-war students have been vindicated by the liberation of Iraq and were rightfully ebullient on Wednesday, a common trope of the professors and their sycophantic followers in the student body was that a quick and easy military operation in Iraq should not be equated with a victory in the war. On one of the most momentous days for America since September 11, few positive comments about our military victory were heard from the faculty panel.”

Ah, to be young and in love with American military hegemony in the Middle East!

In the fall of 2003, as the insurgency in Iraq became harder and harder to ignore, the Middle East Forum at Yale invited Daniel Pipes to speak on campus. Pipes, a neoconservative whose career has been devoted to dark warnings about Islam, founded the national Middle East Forum, of which the Yale chapter was an outpost, and also Campus Watch, which “reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them.” A 2011 report on Islamophobia from the Center for American Progress labeled Pipes a “misinformation expert.”

Pipes’s invitation sparked a backlash. In this pre-Facebook era, campus debate often happened via anonymous flyers posted on physical message boards, and someone tacked up incendiary quotes from Pipes’s oeuvre around Yale. One quote said that Europeans “are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.” Members of Muslim student groups announced that they would protest Pipes’s appearance.

A few days before the Pipes event, Johnson wrote a Yale Daily News op-ed defending Pipes’s scholarship. She argued that the offensive quotes were taken out of context and that Pipes was “among the nation’s preeminent scholars of Islam and the Middle East.” Johnson presented Pipes as a sage who foresaw 9/11, arguing that “the controversial nature of Dr. Pipes’ [sic] scholarship…does not make him a racist, a bigot, a Muslim-hater, or an Islamophobe.”

As an opponent of the Iraq War and someone who held the campus neoconservative clique in contempt, I was very interested in seeing how the spectacle would play out. But there was something odd about the event — it was taking place in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Room 102, a small lecture hall, instead of one of the larger rooms on campus where public talks were regularly held.

On the day of the talk, I showed up early to secure a seat. There was a police officer at the door — definitely not a normal occurrence for a campus event — and once the seats quickly filled up, no one was allowed to sit in the aisles or stand in the back. I recall that Betty Trachtenberg, the tough-as-nails Dean of Students, stood at the entrance to keep a wary eye on things, and that at one point someone banged loudly on the door, trying and failing to get in.

The substance of Pipes’s lecture is totally absent from my memory, and the YDN account of the talk mostly elides it. What I do remember is that it was one of the tensest rooms I’ve ever been in. As soon as Pipes began to speak, audience members, dressed in black, stood up to unfurl protest banners; others put gags across their mouths. This was before the “no-platform” movement took off, and, looking back, the protest seems almost quaint. “Our intent was to be respectful of his presence but to still voice opposition,” Saqib Bhatti, a Muslim Students’ Association member, told the YDN. “We thought the gag was a powerful visual image that can’t be ignored.”

But what happened next is why this event has stuck with me for 15 years and why I’m writing about it now. After Pipes finished his spiel, it was time for questions. But instead of having Pipes pick which students to call on, Johnson (who had introduced Pipes before his talk) got up and called on the students herself. And, despite the fact that the Yale campus as whole and the people in that room were strongly against everything Pipes stood for, the questions he received were split 50/50 for and against. In fact, Johnson alternated between the two sides — she would call on one student who offered up a softball question (I suspect these were all members of the Middle East Forum or Yale Students for Democracy, who tended to be the same people anyways) and then call on another, either a protester with a prepared question about a vile Pipes quote or just a regular student with a critical question.

The event, in other words, was a charade. Johnson and Kirchick had booked a small room that prevented protesters from showing their full strength. Instead of airing the campus’s displeasure with Pipes, they stage-managed the Q&A to make it seem like Pipes’s neoconservative views were more popular than they actually were. And when it was all over, Kirchick got the opportunity to bemon the state of the discourse in a YDN column titled “Campus left silences opposing views,” writing “many Yale leftists are loathe to tolerate opinions different from their own.” That he participated in an event that was jury-rigged to present a false view of campus opinion of course went unmentioned.

The sort of prestidigitation practiced by Kirchick and Johnson as students translated into professional success after graduation. Neocons, despite representing a vanishingly small part of the population, never seem to have trouble finding an outlet for their writing — witness the recent hirings of Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss by the NYT opinion section and of Max Boot at the Washington Post. Johnson went on to write for National Review and now covers the White House for Politico. Kirchick wrote for The New Republic and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age” (a title that would probably make Daniel Pipes smile). I’m sure both Johnson and Kirchick have long and distinguished careers ahead.

Oh, and a careful estimate says that at least 200,000 civilians died in the Iraq War.

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