The Liberal Studies Department at Montana Tech recently initiated a new research colloquium and I was invited to be a discussant for a talk by Professor Henry Gonshak on the figure of the Holocaust survivor, as depicted in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film, The Pawnbroker. I don’t have any training in film studies, so I just prepared some remarks about the political and social context of the film, focusing in particular on Nazism and the Holocaust survivor as cultural signifiers. Henry speaks first and my response begins at 38:51.
Very pleased to learn that my submission to the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual conference has been approved. I last participated in 2010 and enjoyed the experience—but it was only a poster presentation, so this year it will be two firsts: first panel presentation at the premier national political science conference and my first conference as a newly minted doctor.
The paper in question will be a version of the first chapter of my dissertation, entitled “Thresholds of Atrocity: Violence and Vision in Levinas, Murdoch, and Weil.” The benevolent gatekeepers behind the Foundations of Political Theory division have graciously placed me on a panel entitled Trauma and Violence in Contemporary Political Life.
Here’s the abstract I sent:
Every political community sets normative limits to the legitimate use of force—but how much is too much? What distinguishes atrocity from conventional violence? Where should we draw the line between the acceptable and the unconscionable? Few scholars have given atrocity sustained conceptual attention. From the Latin atrox, meaning heinous, cruel, or severe, the very word atrocity implies excess by definition. While Arendt writes that “[v]iolence can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate,” atrocity is neither justifiable nor legitimate. This paper adapts and engages with the aesthetically-oriented philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas, Iris Murdoch, and Simone Weil to advance a theory of atrocity grounded in an expansive notion of moral vision (one that potentially includes literal vision as well as sounds, smells, voices, texts, etc.). After surveying the metaphorical importance of vision and blindness in relation to the rationalization of extreme violence, this paper draws on the work of Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Emmanuel Levinas to assess the possibility of deriving ethical norms from phenomenological experience. Levinas offers the famous face-to-face encounter, while Murdoch and Weil draw upon Buddhist thought to advocate for moral attention. Crucially, much of the world’s violence that would otherwise register as atrocious is not recognized as such because efforts are taken to obscure and actively control the representation of violence, thereby impeding phenomenological comprehensibility in its myriad forms and helping to legitimize the illegitimate.
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
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
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 PETERSEN–OVERTON: 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.
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
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 Academic Freedom & Palestine: A Personal Account
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 Stephen Leberstein: Open Season on Academics
The taboo surrounding critical discussion of Israel in the United States never ceases to amaze me. But when the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) recently decided not to grant an honorary degree to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner because of his views on Israel, it felt personal.
Three months ago, I found myself at the center of a similar controversy over my appointment to teach a course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school. Lacking any evidence to support the charge, a local politician described me as “pro-suicide bomber” and pressed for my dismissal. Within 48 hours and before I had held a single session of the course, the college administration intervened to cancel my appointment. My case set off a groundswell of support from academics and activists around the world and Brooklyn College eventually reinstated me just in time for classes to begin. Continue reading Tony Kushner and the Corporatisation of CUNY
Dear members of the board:
I am writing to protest your vote to overturn John Jay College’s decision to grant an honorary degree to the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. I’m sure you’ve been inundated with messages of support for Mr. Kushner, but I would like to add my drop to the flood and urge you to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.
I recently experienced the same kind of vicious, irrational attacks that have been leveled against Mr. Kushner as the target of controversy surrounding my firing and rehiring at Brooklyn College. At the time, your colleague and fellow trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made disparaging comments about me and my scholarship to the press. Apparently he’s back at work enforcing ideological conformity on Israel by snubbing a world-renowned playwright. Continue reading Letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Re: Tony Kushner