Torture and Moral Vision

* This article originally appeared at WarScapes on February 22, 2015.

Torture is a violation of the law, both domestic and international. It also happens to be a moral outrage. Leaving aside the legal definitions, the abstract notion of a moral outrage entails a degree of subjective judgment—but tends to be more easily identifiable to outsiders than to insiders. After all, few of us possess the moral clarity it takes to reflect upon our own transgressions with the same zeal we readily adopt against others.

In the age of modern nationalism, we extrapolate from individuals and apply the same idea to the various institutions and agencies tasked with representing the political community at large. It is a matter of little dispute, for example, that Iran practices torture against prisoners. Most Americans accept this as obvious and uncontroversial, whether or not they happen to have read the latest human rights reports. Yet when agents acting on behalf of the United States stand accused of such practices—as they have with the partial release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture—euphemism becomes a national pastime.

Take former vice President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks on Meet the Press, an especially adamant defense of the CIA’s interrogation program. There he insisted that waterboarding, a practice refined by the Spanish inquisitors and later embraced by Nazi Germany during WWII, is not a form of torture. Cheney has been consistently eager to draw a clear distinction between CIA actions and torture: the former ostensibly justified, the latter a legal and moral outrage.

While prominent voices within the mass media rightly dismiss Cheney’s arguments as a weak defense offered by someone directly implicated, a recent poll suggests that half the country doesn’t believe his distinction anyway. 49 percent of respondents believe that CIA methods were torture. Despite this, a whopping 59 percent nonetheless believe it was justified. President Obama can deny it all he likes, but torture has seemingly become very much a part of “who we are.”

The passage of torture from unambiguous moral outrage to just another tool of American power is a remarkable story, but not a particularly surprising one if we consider the efforts undertaken to obscure it. The use of euphemism, legalese, the absence of victim’s voices in the media, and in some cases outright suppression of evidence, have all contributed to keeping the unpalatable details out of the spotlight. How are we to exercise moral judgment without an adequate view of the facts? Continue reading Torture and Moral Vision

In Conversation With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, the M.I.T. linguist and renowned iconoclast of the Left, has exerted a tremendous influence on my political and intellectual development. Some of it had to do with hearing his voice as a young person coming of age politically in the immediate post-9/11 United States, with its hysterical jingoism and spurious justification for military intervention. A greater part of his influence on me however has to do with his gracious nature. In 2006, I was a mediocre, solid B student at San Diego State University, writing my undergraduate thesis on Israel’s construction of the West Bank Barrier (under the supervision of SDSU professors Farid Abdel-Nour and Jonathan Graubart). It was probably the first assignment I took seriously up until that point and I sent a draft of the paper to about a dozen scholars, hoping for feedback, but not expecting anything much. To my surprise, Professor Chomsky was the only one to respond—and with extensive comments. That someone in his position would take the time to interact with someone in my position impressed me immensely. It still does. His encouragement was a revelatory experience for me intellectually and the paper, incidentally, went on to win a California-wide award for Best Undergraduate Research in the Social Sciences. I was also frequently in touch with Professor Chomsky during my time working in the Gaza Strip (2007-08) and he was one of the first scholars to send a letter to Brooklyn College protesting my brief dismissal as an adjunct lecturer there in 2011. Just recently, he agreed to meet with me in his office at M.I.T. to discuss my dissertation. I have reproduced the transcript here, including annotations.

Kristofer Petersen-Overton: You talk about Cartesian common sense in much of your work, concerning our inability to recognize an act of atrocity. Iris Murdoch, whose work I use in my dissertation, uses an idea of moral vision, of attention, to express a similar notion. You give the example of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan compared to the American invasion of South Vietnam. For your average person, it’s recognized as common sense that this was an invasion in the Afghan case, whereas it sounds bizarre to talk about the U.S. “invasion” of South Vietnam, something that should be common sense but is apparently obscured. My research is very much interested in this idea. What are the filters to actually seeing what is going on? First of all, the idea that certain forms of violence are invisible and perhaps then also even obscured by active manipulation on the part of political and economic elites. I’m thinking also about your own work on the media system. So I wanted to ask you how one begins to go about this project of achieving common sense, of clear moral vision without the filters. Where to start?

Noam Chomsky: Well take say the inability of educated Americans, let alone the so-called man on the street, to perceive American crimes as crimes. There’s a history. So, for example, if you talk about the war in Vietnam, the phrase “U.S. invasion of South Vietnam” simply does not exist in the professional, academic, and general cultural literature. You don’t have such a notion. The “[Soviet] invasion of Afghanistan” is, of course, normal. What’s the difference?

Well, take two original sins of American society. There are very serious crimes. One is slavery. The United States ran literal slave labor camps for centuries. The modern economy, the modern industrial economy, not just of the United States but of England and of other industrial countries that developed from it, is based on slavery. Cotton was the fuel of the early industrial revolution and most of it was produced right here in slave labor camps of a vicious character. Actually, one of the first books on it just came out: Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told.1 Well, some was known, but he gives a vivid, detailed account of the nature of the slave labor camp and he discusses how maybe the North pretends they weren’t a part of it, but they were. That’s where the merchant manufacturers, bankers, importers of equipment and so on developed their wealth and developed the economy. That’s one and that went on. It didn’t end with the end of slavery. After slavery there was a compact between the North and the South which essentially permitted the South to reintroduce a form of slavery by criminalizing much of the black population and turning them into a slave labor force, except that they were run by the state instead of by the plantations. That’s what the prisons were and much of the American industrial revolution in the later period is also effectively based on slave labor. This went on until the Second World War. It’s been reinstated now with the drug war, which is racist, criminalizing the black male population. Well that’s one crime. It’s not that people are unaware of it. In discussion of let’s say Ferguson, very little attention, in fact virtually none, is given to the fact that in 500 years—1619 is when the first slaves came—African Americans have had a small taste of freedom, sporadically, now and then, for a few decades. Continue reading In Conversation With Noam Chomsky

How Fighting the Corporatization of the American University Can Get You Fired from Your Teaching Job: An Interview with Alternet

This interview was conducted by Alex Ellefson of Alternet and originally appeared there on November 24, 2014.

When Israeli bombs were falling on Gaza this summer, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians, it ignited a global controversy about whether Israel’s actions constituted war crimes. That controversy, in some ways, manifested at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The board of trustees, responding to intense pressure from donors, voted to block the appointment of Native American studies professor Steven Salaita due to his “uncivil” tweets criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza. Salaita, who is Palestinian and the author of Israel’s Dead Soul, left his job at Virginia Tech to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois. However, only a few weeks before he was supposed to start his new position, the school’s chancellor informed him that the job offer had been rescinded.

The incident sparked a backlash from scholars, civil rights groups and activists who argued that the university had violated Salaita’s freedom of speech by firing him. More than 6,000 academics have signed on to an academic boycott against the university and 16 of the school’s departments have passed no-confidence votes against the chancellor.

Salaita’s case is not extraordinary in that he is one of many college professors who have been fired or denied tenure for expressing viewpoints critical of Israel. Last week, Salaita spoke at several campuses about his battle with the University of Illinois. One of the lectures took place at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), which is not unfamiliar with explosive controversies related to Israel and Palestine. Almost two years ago, several New York City councilmembers threatened to pull funding from Brooklyn College if the school’s political science department did not drop its co-sponsorship of an event advocating for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its military occupation of Palestine.

Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College caused a similar uproar last week. Several New York politicians, including State Assemblyman Dov Hikind demanded that the event be canceled. It was the only stop on Salaita’s tour to elicit such a response from elected officials.

To better understand the controversy at Brooklyn College and Salaita’s case in general, I spoke to Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who in his first teaching position as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College had an experience similar to Salaita’s. In 2011, several alumni, including Hikind, publicly objected to Petersen-Overton’s appointment to teach a graduate-level class on the Middle East. Hikind accused him of being “an overt supporter of terrorism” because of an academic paper he wrote about the concept of martyrdom in Palestinian society. Brooklyn College, which initially explained it was dismissing Petersen-Overton because he had not completed his PhD and thus was not qualified to teach the class, eventually reinstated him a week later in response to a global campaign from many of the same people protesting the decision against Salaita. Continue reading How Fighting the Corporatization of the American University Can Get You Fired from Your Teaching Job: An Interview with Alternet

Appearance on Democracy Now

On September 9, 2014, I appeared for a second time on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman to discuss the firing of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

KRISTOFER PETERSENOVERTON: Yeah, well, I mean, I think there are important points of contact between my experience at Brooklyn College and Professor Salaita’s case. I mean, I was hired back in 2011 as an adjunct lecturer, so that’s a significant difference. I’m not a tenured professor. I’m a doctoral student, actually, at the CUNY Graduate Center. But many of us also teach courses in order to support our education. So I was hired to teach a one-semester course on Middle East politics. But before I was able to actually arrive in the classroom, a student complained to the department that she had googled me online and found some of my views apparently she took issue with and complained that I would be slanted and unfair towards Israel. The department asked her to hold off, and she turned around instead and went to a New York state assemblyperson, who then issued a press release calling me a, quote, “overt supporter of terrorism.” And this turned into an enormous controversy, which I didn’t expect, not knowing the political culture of Brooklyn College, not knowing the politics and background of this issue there. And unfortunately, the political science department, while supporting me, was routed by the administration, who intervened and canceled my appointment. And were it not for a large mobilization of students, faculty, activists and all sorts of independent organizations around the country and world, I wouldn’t have gotten my job back five days later.

Academic Freedom and the Boycott

* This article originally appeared in the Graduate Center Advocate in February 2014.

“We repudiate any effort to foreclose productive dialogue.” Such is the position of CUNY Interim Chancellor William Kelly, who released a short press statement in late December unilaterally reaffirming the consortium’s “long association with Israeli scholars and universities.” Kelly was responding, of course, to the controversial non-binding resolution recently passed by the American Studies Association (ASA) in favor of boycotting formal ties with Israeli universities. Similar statements have been released or signed by senior administrators at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Amherst, Duke, Tulane, the University of Pennsylvania, and many more. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in view of their “long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas,” has also reaffirmed its opposition—since at least 2005—to academic boycotts.

Politicians have also joined in on thereaction. In late January the New York State Senate quietly passed a bill that would “prohibit any college from using state aid to fund an academic entity, to provide funds for membership in an academic entity, or fund travel or lodging for any employee to attend any meeting
of such academic entity if that academic entity has undertaken an official action boycotting certain countries or their higher education institutions.” The bill, which the New York Times predicted would have “trample[d] on academic freedoms and chill[ed] free speech and dissent,” bore a disturbing resemblance to the “deeply anti-democratic” legislation passed in Israel that today subjects advocates of a boycott to criminal penalties. Fortunately, the New York version has now been scrapped; but the logic behind such moves is clear: it is necessary to boycott the boycotters in order to stop boycotts. Lost amid the clamor is the very real question of academic freedom itself, which is both poorly represented and widely mischaracterized.

Citing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land since 1967, its relentless expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the construction of a wall condemned by the International Court of Justice, the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, and the suppression of basic human rights (including the denial of academic freedom), the ASA voted on December 4, 2013 to endorse “the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The call is not compulsory and members are expressly encouraged to “act according to their conscience and convictions on these complex issues … [T]he ASA exercises no legislative authority over its members.” Put simply, scholars remain free to pursue their own work, while the ASA as a body simply chooses not to establish formal ties with Israeli institutions. Even the New York Times acknowledges that “the boycott does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary exchanges,” yet most of the outrage mistakenly claims the opposite.

Such wide condemnation is mainly semantic. After all, who could possibly stomach the idea of “boycotting” the free exchange of ideas? The very suggestion smacks of McCarthyism—or worse! This peculiar interpretation (incidentally not at all what the boycott calls for) has the unfortunate effect of stirring pious indignation among many of the same individuals whose concern for academic freedom does not extend to threats on their own campuses. The potential perils faced by Israeli scholars apparently command more attention than the enormous structural threat to academic freedom posed by the exploitation of adjunct labor at home.

Yet even the contrived administrative concern for the potential threat to Israeli academic freedom is predicated on a misconception. If we agree with the AAUP’s 1940 statement of principles that academic freedom protects the “individual’s ability to conduct teaching and research without interference,” then even a cursory look at what the academic boycott proposes should dispel any suggestion that the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.

Each of us chooses to work or not to work with scholars for any number of reasons. is is a negative liberty we enjoy in the academy. As a negative liberty, unless restrictions are put in place that would impede such freedom, it is presumed to prevail. If academic freedom is sufficiently upheld then we cannot be compelled to work with anyone for any reason. e motives behind our decision are irrelevant. Perhaps I resent you personally; perhaps I think you produce shoddy scholarship; perhaps you hold views I find deeply offensive. Whatever my rationale, however correct or misguided, it remains my decision not to work with you. In refusing to establish formal ties with Israeli institutions, the ASA is merely expressing this liberty. Moreover, there’s something particularly obscene about the level of debate, the sheer output of concern over the ostensible threat to academic freedom faced by Israeli scholars while the conditions faced by Palestinian scholars inspires far less piety—even while Palestinian scholars are subject to the inevitable impediments and challenges that military occupation brings with it.

The following case highlights this hypocrisy. Brandeis University recently severed various cooperative ties with Al Quds University in Jerusalem to protest an Islamic Jihad rally that took place on campus, apparently featuring Nazi-style salutes, fake weapons, and photographs of suicide bombers. No one at Brandeis seemed particularly disturbed with the decision to pull out—to effectively boycott Al Quds University—though it means terminating many established academic programs. Yet the entire American Studies at Brandeis department resigned from the ASA in protest of their largely symbolic, non-binding resolution against Israeli institutions.

But let’s assume the academic boycott is, as many claim, a violation of academic freedom. If this is the case, then the logical implications of the argument take us to some fairly untenable conclusions. If it is a violation of academic freedom to refuse to work with certain institutions or to cut established ties with those institutions, then it follows that universities lacking established ties to those institutions are also in violation of academic freedom. I suppose these universities must now be compelled to immediately initiate cooperative endeavors, lest they undermine Israeli academic freedom. is becomes tiring very quickly and obliterates the negative liberty of choosing who or who not to work with, a key element of academic freedom. In a line of reasoning that may have inspired our esteemed state politicians, Indiana University has since with- drawn from the ASA in the name of academic freedom (of course). As Corey Robin writes pointedly:

Indiana University is so opposed to boycotts of academic institutions in Israel that it is going to boycott an academic institution in the United States.

The reader will have noticed that I avoided any discus- sion of the justi cations motivating the boycott. I also did not discuss the boycott’s tactical virtues. As activists and scholars, many of us might disagree with an academic boycott on tactical grounds. Perhaps one feels such a move is counterproductive or will result in negligible gains for the Palestinian struggle. Those are valid arguments and should be taken seriously. Challenging the boycott on grounds of academic freedom is not. 

Not About BDS

There is something particularly poisonous about the kind of political opportunism on display at Brooklyn College right now. Unfortunately, it’s all déjà vu for me and my former colleagues in the political science department. The Brooklyn College chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) recently organized a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) featuring noted Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti and internationally renowned philosopher Judith Butler. It promises to be an exciting evening, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Harvard law professor (and Brooklyn College alumnus) Alan Dershowitz and New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind successfully canvassed support from a number of politicians, and managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage. The discussion is scheduled to take place tomorrow and, thanks to a massive backlash against such unwarranted political pressure, it will take place tomorrow. Yet, the rapid manufacture of a national controversy in this case reveals, once again, the tenuous state of academic freedom on our campuses and the ease with which extra-academic influence stifles free debate.

BDS has made enormous strides in the last few years as a nonviolent form of resistance to Israel’s occupation, so it shouldn’t be surprising that student activists at Brooklyn College would seek to host a discussion on the tactic. Of course, BDS is not without controversy and the issue is rightly being debated across the country and around the world. But this is Brooklyn College, where a number of earlier controversies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have snowballed into minor national scandals. One does not simply… criticize Israel at Brooklyn College. I know this better than I’d like to.

Continue reading Not About BDS

“This is Not Europe!” Crisis and Revolt in Greece

Athens is empty in August. The sidewalks, fractured and misshapen by overgrown oleander and bitter orange trees, take on a calm one rarely experiences in this city. Bakeries and other small businesses temporarily close while Athenians escape to the islands or, just as likely, to mountain villages for family reunions and local religious festivals. Barring the tourist vortex between the Acropolis, the quaint Plaka district, and the Monastiraki flea market, August betrays few signs of Athens’ otherwise constant pace. Those who choose to remain behind claim the city is at its best during this period. Some take evening excursions to Lycabettus Hill (created when Athena clumsily dropped a mountain she had been carrying) to gaze at the massive summer moon. Students pass spliffs on the grass in Gazi or share a few beers in Psyri. The entire country takes a month off during diakopes. This year was different. Many Greeks simply could not afford to leave for the holiday and as they could neither afford to dine out, their unusual presence was not apparent. Throngs of American and German tourists notwithstanding, Athens still exuded an outward calm, hiding the country’s very serious problems. Greece, after all, is a society on its knees.

The sovereign debt crisis and more than two years of economic austerity imposed by the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—collectively known as the Troika—have taken a visible toll on the population. The economic fallout has adversely affected nearly everyone either directly, through cuts to public pensions and income, or indirectly, through cuts to health services and other basic infrastructure. Drug and alcohol abuse have spiked, suicide rates are up 40%, and life expectancy is already reported to have dropped. Unemployment is quickly approaching 30%, forcing one in four Greeks into poverty. With the economy in its fifth straight year of contraction, an exodus of young, educated Greeks are leaving the country, settling in the cities of Western Europe, Australia, and the United States. Fear and rage have become the basis of political existence, eclipsing other concerns as the crisis consumes everything in its wake. What political scientists call a “collective action dilemma” (the inherent risks and potentially insignificant rewards that come as a result of political mobilization) has become a daily question of very real significance for every Greek citizen. Continue reading “This is Not Europe!” Crisis and Revolt in Greece

The Narcissism of Small Differences

It’s been about seven months since Chris Hedges dropped his bombshell attack on Black Bloc tactics as the “cancer in Occupy” and his words still echo in activist circles across the country. Charging protestors who “dress in black” or “obscure their faces” with hypermasculine—even criminal—behavior, Hedges drove a wedge between radicals within Occupy apparently committed to very different visions of resistance. Debates within the movement have obsessively focused on the virtues or otherwise of violence at the hands of protestors and the state security apparatus. The small, but persistent anarchist core that helped launch the protests in 2011, predictably scandalized by Hedges’ unhinged accusations, flatly refused to engage with him publicly. Hedges similarly expressed no interest in opening up a dialog with people he viewed as little more than thugs and hooligans. Fortunately for us, this mutual skepticism was overcome last Wednesday in a highly anticipated, but ultimately anti-climactic, debate between Hedges and the ideologically anarchist CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective.

I entered into the debate expecting to sympathize with CrimethInc. and left frustrated by the shallowness of the discussion. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote an op-ed critical of Hedges in this newspaper following his inflammatory article earlier this year.) I had sincerely hoped to hear a compelling case for the ubiquitous “diversity of tactics” hailed by so many on the libertarian Left. Unfortunately, Brian Traven, the CrimethInc. representative charged with debating Chris Hedges, struck me as woefully unprepared for the task. This was unfortunate, not only because the audience was denied a truly incisive look at the important issues, but also because Proshansky auditorium was literally overflowing with black-clad, body-modified anarcho-punks expecting to see Hedges put in his place. In my view at least, this did not happen. To put it simply, Traven lost at what should have been a homecoming game. Continue reading The Narcissism of Small Differences

On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Earlier this year, a letter was read aloud to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania as they waited to hear a talk by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. The auditorium was filled to capacity and the mood was grim. UPenn president and political theorist Amy Gutmann was unable to attend the event, so a proxy was called in to read her prepared statement welcoming professor Dershowitz and, more importantly, explaining the university’s position vis-à-vis a particular conference occurring on campus at that very moment:

It is important that you all know that we have been unambiguous in repudiating the positions that are espoused by those sponsoring that conference. They run counter to our principles, our ideals and importantly, our actions.

It was a stern reaction to a controversy that had unfolded at Penn for weeks, provoking heated debates in the pages of the university newspaper and dividing students and faculty alike into opposing camps. Not all responses were quite as diplomatic as Gutmann’s guarded statement. One professor explicitly compared the organizers to Nazis, expressing outrage that a “genocidal” group was allowed to convene at all.

What could have prompted such vitriol? What was this awful conference? Were neo-fascists visiting UPenn?  Continue reading On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

On Resistance

Anyone who takes political resistance seriously must eventually confront the timeless question of tactics: which forms of resistance are appropriate to the struggle at hand; and which—if any—are not? A second set of questions necessarily accompanies the first, namely, by what set of criteria are tactics deemed appropriate or inappropriate to begin with and (most importantly) who can legitimately make such a determination? All social movements respond in some way to these questions, but the dilemma is especially complicated for movements seeking to mobilize a broad base of support.

Now that the first “phase” of Occupy has given way to a more dispersed movement, the debate over tactics has intensified. It’s important to remember that the proliferation of ideas and perspectives at work in every movement invariably creates tension. This is part of what makes Occupy, like all democratic movements, so exhilarating. Unfortunately, tension is often misunderstood as disorganization. To those activists for whom uniformity is synonymous with coherence, conformity is paramount. Tactics undertaken on behalf of the movement must be strictly regulated so as not to disrupt a narrow vision of Occupy’s character and aims. One such vision was recently articulated by Chris Hedges in his recent polemic, “Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy.” Continue reading On Resistance