In Conversation With Noam Chomsky

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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. Continue reading

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.

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“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

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

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 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

Academic Freedom & Palestine: A Personal Account

Good research is often controversial. In the social sciences, the exchange of new ideas, new interpretations of history, and the excavation of counter-hegemonic or what Michel Foucault would call “subjugated” knowledge unsettles and upsets received wisdom. For those of us fortunate enough to study a region as eternally fascinating and intellectually demanding as the Middle East, I think this point is especially salient. And for those of us who both research and teach these subjects in a post-9/11 United States it is more relevant still. In the decade since that terrible tragedy, we have witnessed the emergence of a resurgent anti-intellectualism both in the halls of government and on our campuses. As the Bush administration pursued policies of reckless destruction abroad, self-appointed guardians of the academy swiftly appeared on the domestic front, contributing to the jingoistic fervor of the time by encouraging students to report on the alleged anti-American and anti-Israeli biases of their professors. Couching a narrowly authoritarian vision of the University in an Orwellian discourse of “tolerance” and even “academic freedom,” outspoken ideologues like David Horowitz insist that the academy suffers from insufficient “balance.” Of course, such attacks have little to do with a genuine concern for pedagogical practice; rather, they are the culmination of the Right’s long-standing attempt at eliminating the last vestiges of progressivism and critical intellectual inquiry from the American political landscape. Continue reading

Liza Featherstone: Caught in the Web

While labor lags behind other social movements in Internet organizing, some inspiring models are emerging. At the beginning of the year, Kristofer Petersen-Overton—an adjunct—was fired from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, just after a right-wing Zionist politician criticized his course on the Middle East for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. In an opinion piece for the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, Petersen-Overton wrote:

In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remission, access to subsidized health care for my family, and financial compensation for the spring semester in a time of serious economic uncertainty. If the college’s decision stands, it should send a chill throughout the entire adjunct community.

CUNY graduate students—led by political science Ph.D. candidate, Michael Busch—mobilized, using what they had: eloquence, access to other scholars, and Internet savvy. They started a blog on the issue and solicited letters from a wide swath of intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani. The administrators were bombarded with letters urging them to reconsider their decision, and there was some press about the matter. (Full disclosure: I also wrote a letter.) All the letters went up on the blog, which only inspired more people to write. After just a few days of this epistolary assault, Petersen-Overton was rehired.

* Excerpt from Liza Featherstone, “Caught in the Web: The Teacher Union Counterattack,” New Labor Forum 20, no. 2 (2011): 92-95.

Stephen Leberstein: Open Season on Academics

The year began with threats of violence against Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center, following Glenn Beck’s repeated denunciations of Piven on his Fox network show and the posting of her home address on his blog. At the same time, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD student in political science hired to teach a course on Middle Eastern politics at Brooklyn College, was fired just days before his first class following a complaint to the Chancellor by Assemblymember Dov Hikind. Continue reading