The Latest Max Karson Brouhaha Keeps Building

CU student and inveterate controversy magnet Max Karson has made plenty of headlines in recent years for his satirical writings and attention-getting stunts, as this February 21 More Messages blog outlines. However, his latest contretemps, spurred by a piece entitled "If It's War the Asians Want..." that ran in CU's online Campus Press, appears to have more staying power than even many longtime Karson observers might have guessed.

In advance of a February 27 rally intended to condemn the column, as well as a meeting between protestors and CU chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson scheduled to take place immediately thereafter, CU has affixed a sprawling resource page to its website, complete with an "open letter to the CU community," a comprehensive chronology of event, and statements from Peterson, Campus Press advisor Amy Herdy, and CU journalism department dean Paul Voakes, who makes an appearance in the February 28 Message in regard to a more positive subject -- CU's recent hiring of three Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, including longtime Rocky Mountain News scribe Jim Sheeler. Meanwhile, the Campus Press has gone into overdrive, offering an article about the process that led to the original column's appearance, a letter from various Press editors who want to make it clear that they objected to the decision to publish from the get-go, and a lengthy exploration of satire -- an art form many of the parties on both sides of the issue seem to understand none too well.

Unexpected incidents aplenty have already been generated by this hullabaloo. For example, Herdy, a former Denver Post reporter, didn't return a call from her old paper according to a February 22 Post update. But an interesting side note about Karson has been lost in the frenzy. Shortly before the firestorm over the Asian column, he wrote "Bruce and Me," a Press essay about a public confrontation between him and incoming CU head Bruce Benson -- and among those publicly praising it was an associate professor from the very CU journalism department that's currently taking heat for his prose.

In the column, which hit screens on February 13, Karson wrote about being assigned to take his measure of Benson, whose status as the only finalist for CU's top job had fired up plenty of opposition. Upon deciding to attend an open forum at which Benson would answer questions from the audience, Karson did some research into his background. Here's an excerpt about what he found:

One story reported that during Benson's first open forum with students, he told them that he supports women's issues, and if he doesn't, his wife will keep him in line. This was in response to a female student in the audience pointing out that Benson contributed to Sen. Bob Packwood's defense fund in a sexual assault case.

That's when I started to hate Benson. Most male politicians know by now that you can't answer questions about your insensitivity to rape by saying, "Heh, heh, women!"

Then I heard that he threatened to kill his ex-wife. That story broke when he ran for governor of Colorado in 1994 and his divorce papers were made public. He even admitted to threatening her in an interview with the New York Times.

Armed with this information, Karson formulated a question and headed to the forum. After sitting through several back-and-forths between students and Benson, including one that found the latter describing philanthropist Tim Gill as "a big gay," he took his place in front of the microphone. He describes the moment of its delivery and the subsequent fallout thusly:

"Hi, I'm Max, and I'm a senior in psychology." My voice boomed through the speakers. I unfolded my piece of paper. "The tri-executives have asked us to consider your biographical information in our evaluation of you as a candidate," I said. "So here's some biographical information: In 1992, you contributed money to Sen. Bob Packwood's defense fund when he was accused of sexual assault and abuse by ten women. In 1994, not only were you accused of threatening to kill your ex-wife, you publicly admitted to doing it. She also filed a motion in court stating that she feared for her safety."

People gaped at me. Some of them were laughing, but many were glaring at me, as though I had snuck into Benson's underwear drawer and stolen his diary.

I continued, "You also admitted to having an affair for two years before you asked for a divorce." The audience interrupted me with a gasp.

The microphone guy put his hand on my shoulder. "Give me the microphone," he said.

"And here at CU, earlier this month, you said that you're very proactive for women, but if you're not, your wife will make sure that you are. It seems like you have some problems with women. How do you respond to that?"

By this time both of my arms were completely numb and my legs were tingling up to my knees. The microphone guy tried to grab the microphone from my hand but I pulled it away.

Benson shook his head. "Don't try and tell me I'm opposed to women. You know, I hate questions like that. You haven't done your homework, and you ought to do your homework. I never threatened my wife, and you can ask some of the women I've worked with, they'll all tell you the same thing. I don't have any problems with women. The Denver Public Schools foundation is all women."

Amazingly, the audience broke out in applause, happy to see me discredited.

As they clapped, the edges of my vision began to yellow and darken.

"Just because-" I began, and then stopped. They had cut my microphone. "Hey!" I said. "My mic stopped working!"

UCSU's chief of staff appeared behind me and whispered, "You have to sit down right now."

I shouted to Benson, "Just because you know some women you haven't threatened to kill-"

I was cut off by a roar of disapproval from the audience.

One student twisted his face in disgust and said, "Hey, c'mon man! Talk about the qualifications!"

"Well, there are a lot of women here at CU." I said. "And I think they're probably going to be concerned about this!"

Benson fired back, but I couldn't hear him because the UCSU chief of staff leaned close to my ear and said, "If you don't sit down, I'm going to kick you out."

"Okay," I said, still standing. If only he knew that I would have fallen down all by myself if he just waited thirty more seconds.

"Right now," he said. "I'm going to kick you out right now."

"Okay," I said. He didn't respond. "I'll sit down once he stops answering my question," I said. He gave up, nodding.

Toward the conclusion of the column, Karson insisted that he'd asked his question "respectfully" -- obviously a subjective judgment considering that the query itself doesn't exactly qualify as courteous. Whatever the case, though, a comment soon appeared from Tom Yulsman, a CU journalism instructor lauding Karson for his actions:

Max: If you indeed asked the question as you've described it here, and you did it in a respectful manner, I think you are to be commended. It is an absolutely relevant and important question, and I believe the man who would be president of the University of Colorado system should address it.

Moreover, it is disturbing that people in the audience evidently felt that incidents in Benson's past bearing on his temperament for the job are irrelevant and even disrespectful -- and that somehow you have no right to ask about them. If you were being respectful, I also find it alarming that not only did they turn off your mic but they handed you that pink warning paper, as if there is something wrong with a student trying to exercise his right to free speech. This seems to be an example of a mob trying to silence someone who is asking uncomfortable but necessary questions. The people running the event should be ashamed of themselves.

Bruce Benson did indeed admit to threatening to kill his wife. What's even worse, he told his own son that he was going to kill his mother. That strikes me as tantamount to abusive behavior. How could he ever do that to someone he presumably loves? I can't imagine saying something like that to my child. In the New York Times article you referenced, Benson excused his behavior by saying that he meant the word kill "figuratively." I've been with my wife for more than 30 years, so it's no surprise that we sometimes get into spats. That's normal. But it most definitely is NOT normal to say in a spat -- or any other situation for that matter -- that you are going to kill your wife, figuratively or literally, let alone repeat the same thing to your son. A parent who was trying hard to keep the best interests of his child in mind would do everything possible to shield the child from such discord. The fact that Benson did exactly opposite -- the fact that he seems to have tried to use his son to intimidate and frighten his wife -- is profoundly disquieting. And what does this say about Benson's qualification to help ensure the welfare of young adults in the University of Colorado system?

Combine these incidents with the two DUIs, and a picture emerges -- quite apart from politics and experiential qualifications for the job -- of a man who may well not be suited for this position. Perhaps a case can be made that these incidents from long ago are outweighed by all the good he can do for the university right now, especially in fundraising. But certainly there is no justification for his being the sole candidate. And there is absolutely no cause for shutting down discussion of past incidents that bear directly on his ability to lead this university effectively. If he has truly learned his lesson and become a better person, let him make that case, and in competition with other finalists.

Lastly, please don't despair. You were very brave to do what you did, and despite the mob's reaction, you did the right thing. As a student your age back in the 1970s, I once got up to ask a political figure my own inconvenient questions -- politely and respectfully, as you say you did. And I was shouted down, the microphone was ripped from my hands, and I was ushered out of the room. That firmed up my determination to go on asking inconvenient questions, as a journalist. I hope you will feel the same way, whether you go into journalism or some other field. Don't let them intimidate you into silencing yourself.

Of course, there are plenty of forces currently trying to silence Karson. But he's not particularly good at staying quiet. -- Michael Roberts