Special Assignment: Cooper Union

By JOHN BLOOM  |  Dec. 21, 2001 at 1:20 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Less than a mile from Ground Zero, at Astor Place in the East Village, there stands a big brown Gothic building that looks kind of gloomy and foreboding. It's the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which was the first free university in the nation and still, 144 years later, doesn't charge tuition.

Even though it was basically set up to teach practical crafts -- its only schools are art, architecture and engineering -- it's always been a hotbed of dissent, protest, agitation and general rabble-rousing.

In the Great Hall, which seats about 900, Abraham Lincoln made his first speech about slavery. The NAACP was born there, as was the women's suffrage movement and the American Red Cross. It was the place where anarchists met to plan their anarchy. It was where the labor movement gathered to commemorate the death of Karl Marx. Anti-war leaders staged many a rally in and around Cooper Union, standing as it does just footsteps from St. Mark's Place, where hippies dwell to this day.

The Great Hall has always been the place where New Yorkers gathered to say, "We DON'T stand with America."

And the Great Hall has been very, very quiet lately. Eerily so.

Has New York changed forever? New York has long been demonized as the headquarters of the nation's malcontents and America-haters. Its critics usually refer to its "media elite," which is code for privileged, ivory-tower, leftist, and out of touch with the rest of the country.

Where'd they go? I can't find them.

You certainly won't find any bleeding hearts on the New York-based Fox News Network, for example, where the only guest more welcome than a retired Army general is Newt Gingrich, and where they give prominent attention to the wacky frothing-at-the-mouth field reports of Geraldo Rivera, complete with footage of himself climbing through Tora Bora caves, saying things like, "I just feel it in my gut, based on my years of news experience; something is happening here; they'll have bin Laden by high noon tomorrow." (Is this the same guy who once dressed as a hippie and did up-close-and-personal interviews with drugged-out rock stars?)

No leftists over at MSNBC, where the occasional peacenik is brought on for entertainment value (sample question: "Don't you think America is fed up with this kind of thing?") but where the bon mots of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are treated like golden nuggets granted to us by a wise old terrorism veteran. (Netanyahu has the distinct advantage of speaking perfect accent-free English, so as not to confuse our perceptions with Semitic inflections.)

Dan Abrams, host of "The Abrams Report," is fond of reminding us that "everything changed on Sept. 11, "by which he usually means our misplaced belief in the mere letter of the law.

Then there's the New York Post, which routinely describes the Taliban as "thugs," "scum" and worse, and has made accused traitor Johnny Walker, or "Taliban Johnny," into their new poster boy for moral depravity. (He follows in a great tradition of daily "Jerk of the Year" recipients: Hilary Clinton, Lizzie Grubman and Woody Allen are all recent recipients.)

The New York Times has lately been criticized for being "soft" on terrorism, mostly because of an editorial page that nobody reads, but it's balanced by The Wall Street Journal, which has taken such a "line-'em-up-and-shoot-'em" attitude that it frightens part of THEIR readership, probably the most conservative in the country.

That leaves the Village Voice, headquartered one block from Cooper Union, which has published a series of Nat Hentoff articles on how the Patriot Act shreds the Bill of Rights, but otherwise you'll need to look long and hard for evidence of New York's liberal bias.

Ironically, if you're searching for a moderate view of the war, the most likely source is CNN, which is not based in New York at all, but in Newt Gingrich's home state. (They're moving to New York soon, though, presumably to be closer to Ground Zero and the cries for revenge.)

What's strange about this is that, in every other crisis in the nation's history, New York has been the city that welcomed dissenters. New Yorkers weren't too fond of the Boston Tea Party, for example, and during the Civil War a draft protest resulted in one of the worst riots in the city's history.

New Yorkers have always loved an argument, and there ARE a few occasional bursts of "Are you sure we're doing the right thing?" But what's spooky this time is that the argument doesn't involve any of the kooky fringe people you normally see stumping on Union Square or organizing performance-art fund raisers in Soho. It would be refreshing to see one, just ONE, demonstration dedicated to the proposition that "The Taliban is not that bad." Something as mild as that. But you can comb the Arab neighborhoods of Brooklyn and not find a single fanatic true believer. (Maybe they're all in jail.)

I would feel a lot better about our media if we had more Islamic fundamentalists and defenders of bin Laden on the air. They MUST exist, even in this country, and there ARE people out there who can defend the burqa and the other intricacies of sharia law. Our view has always been "Let 'em have their say, and then have at 'em." Until now. For once the public halls of agitation have been wholly silenced.

I actually think it happened long before Sept. 11 -- and I can almost pinpoint the precise day. It was Oct. 2, 1992, when Governor Robert P. Carey of Pennsylvania came to Cooper Union to make a speech entitled "Can a Liberal Be Pro-Life?" Carey was well known as an advocate of women's rights, children's rights, worker's rights, and all the causes dear to the hearts of Democrats, so he was invited to New York to explain why he took the conservative side on the abortion issue.

He was scheduled for the Great Hall, but no one heard his words that night. The reason is that about 100 protesters shouted him down. The moderator appealed to the angry feminists and gay-rights people to let Carey speak, but they kept shouting "Murderers have no right to speak!" Then they took up the chant -- "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Governor Carey go away!" -- and eventually he was forced to leave the podium, and leave town. The citadel of free speech had suffered a devastating defeat.

Later the protesters would defend their actions by saying that THEY were exercising THEIR right of free speech, which meant that the First Amendment, in their minds, had come down to a matter of who could muster the largest and loudest mob. New York had turned nasty and mean. New York wanted to hear what New York wanted to hear.

The wild-eyed mullahs could probably book a night at the Great Hall if they wanted to, but God help them if they tried to actually say something.


(John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. He can be reached at joebob@upi.com.)

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