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.

The other crime is the extermination of the indigenous population. You can actually read articles in journals like the New York Review of Books, the leading left-liberal intellectual journal. A couple of years ago they had an article by a good leftist or kind of left-liberal there, Russell Baker, describing his discovery of the fact that when Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere there were only about a million people in the hemisphere from the steaming tropics in the south to the arctic north straggling around.2 He’s off by about [18] million and they didn’t just disappear.3 To a large extent they were exterminated. But that passes without a comment. This goes right up to the present. We don’t see our own crimes. Why? It’s not unique to the United States. It’s the same everywhere.

So for example, France. Maybe 20 percent of French wealth derives from their vicious destruction of Haiti, their richest colony. When Haiti finally won its liberation in a terrible war of destruction, France imposed an indemnity on Haiti, a crushing indemnity to punish them for liberating themselves from France. That had a horrible effect on their future efforts to develop. Recently, President Aristide, before he was thrown out in a US-French coup, politely suggested to the French that they consider some amelioration of the burden that they had imposed on Haiti for liberating itself. There was a commission in France set up to investigate it. They dismissed that as without merit. OK, and you can duplicate this in country after country. Why? Well, there are many mechanisms.

Take say the United States. The United States is maybe the most secure country in the world. Enormous. It has been since it’s origins. It’s also one of the most frightened countries in the world. It goes right back to colonial times. You can see it in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, a person of enlightenment by contemporary standards, wrote that one of the charges against King George of England in the Declaration is, you know, he unleashed against us “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction” and so on and so forth. He was there. He knew it was the merciless English savages who were unleashed against the indigenous population and virtually exterminated them. But it’s the opposite and we intone it every year, quietly, and it’s in the imagery, the mythology, you know the literature, the films and so on, defending ourselves against the merciless Indian savages.

One of the reasons for the gun culture, the kind of crazed gun culture in the United States, goes right back to slavery. There was great fear, including people like Jefferson, that if the slaves were in any way free, they would react. They have, as Jefferson put it, 10,000 reminiscences of the horrors we’ve imposed on them. They’ll react and there’ll be a race war. They’ll try to exterminate us, so we have to defend ourselves from the slaves. Then we have to defend ourselves from this, that, and the other enemy. Now it happens to be Islam, narco-traffickers, whatever it may be, communists. It’s a frightened country and it’s very easy in that intellectual, cultural context for the leadership to impose on the population the conception that “they” are going to destroy us. And it’s believed!

See, take South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was kind of a man of the people. He spoke honestly and reflected common conceptions. Take a look at a speech of his that he gave in Asia in I think 1966. He was addressing American soldiers and what he said is there are 150 million of us and 3 billion of them and if might makes right they’ll sweep over us and take all that we have, so we have to defend ourselves in South Vietnam from being overwhelmed by the mass of “them.”4 That’s a deep-seated conception. That’s why we have to have a thousand military bases. Because even then all over there they’re going to sweep all over us. You read contemporary discussion, current discussion, by leading political analysts in journals like Foreign Affairs that we must intervene everywhere or else they’re going to come after us. In that case, everything we do is defense.

KPO: One of the issues that I explore in my dissertation is the place of the Nazi holocaust in the popular imagination and how it is often used, I’m arguing, as a kind of benchmark of what makes an atrocity. So anything less than concentration camps, gas chambers, is perhaps perceived as not quite an atrocity. In one chapter I’m looking at the field of genocide studies, arguing that the large concentration on the Nazi holocaust has perhaps created a blind spot when it comes to recognizing atrocities that occur in other forms today. For instance, I give the example of the My Lai massacre. One of the reasons this particular massacre became so outrageous in a war defined by numerous atrocities, at least in some parts of the country, is because people actually began to draw comparisons to Nazis, calling it a “Nazi kind of thing.” It seems the Nazi holocaust is often used as a rule of thumb for identifying atrocity or transgressive violence in general. I wonder what you think about that.

NC: I see it a little differently. At the time of the My Lai massacre, the New York Review of Books was still permitting writers from the Left—that ended by the early 1970s—so I was one of the writers and I was asked by the editor to write about it. This was before it was called My Lai and I told them I would write about it, but only if I described the My Lai massacre as a footnote to what was happening because it was a very small atrocity by comparison with what was happening. They agreed, reluctantly, and I did have an article. It’s called “After Pinkville“—[My Lai] was called Pinkville at the time—and I did mention the My Lai massacre, but in the context.5 So why did the My Lai massacre become such a huge thing? Actually if you look at the My Lai massacre, it was literally a footnote. It was one operation of many which were part of a major military operation which was really brutal and vicious, with B-52 attacks on concentrated urban centers, all kinds of horrors. In the course of it, there were individual atrocities like My Lai. In fact, when there was finally an investigation of My Lai, a military investigation, they found other similar massacres right in the neighborhood. The Quakers at the time had a clinic at Quang Ngai nearby. They reported the My Lai massacre at once but paid no attention to it because it was happening every day. So why did My Lai become the symbol of American atrocities? I think there’s a simple reason: you could blame My Lai on them, namely uneducated GIs in the field, not people like us, not like the nice guys who were sitting in air-conditioned rooms and planning the B-52 raids on populated centers. Not people like us. Poor uneducated people who went wild. Actually these are people you can sympathize with. They’re stuck in the jungle somewhere, they don’t know who’s going to shoot at them next, and they went crazy. But it’s easy to blame them. They’re different from us. We’re the nice guys carrying out the major atrocities, but that’s why I don’t think My Lai was, I mean of course it was horrible, but the fact that it became a symbol of atrocities is very striking. It’s nothing as compared with even the single operation that it was part of.

Edward Herman and I wrote a book about this in 1979 where we went through the record of the actual operations that were going on and described My Lai as a footnote. We were using the notes taken by Kevin Buckley. He was the Saigon correspondent, I think for Newsweek, yeah Newsweek, at the time and he and an associate did a very careful investigation of all of these massacres and Newsweek wouldn’t publish it. He gave it to me personally and I used it. We have his notes in there. So that’s My Lai.

Let’s take the holocaust. The history of attention to the holocaust is pretty interesting. It’s discussed by Peter Novick in a book, Tom Segev and others.6 There was not much concern about it. It wasn’t just, you know, about not bombing Auschwitz. What about right after the holocaust? People, Jews were still in concentration camps. Truman sent a mission headed Earl Harrison to investigate the concentration camps. He pointed out they were about the same as under the Nazis. The only difference is they don’t have the gas chambers so people weren’t being [exterminated]. But they were in a horrible condition. Now ask yourself a simple question: why didn’t those people come to the United States? I mean, if you had asked them “where do you want to go?” The miserable survivors, what do you think they would have said? Half the population of Europe would have wanted to come to the United States. Undoubtedly, they would have chosen to come to the United States if they had a chance. They didn’t. The U.S. had racist immigration laws which wouldn’t allow Jews. The 1924 immigration laws were aimed at Jews and Italians. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the country. Furthermore, the American Jewish community didn’t want them. The only people who lobbied for trying to introduce them into the limited immigration acts [was] the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. So they didn’t want them here. Meanwhile, the Yishuv7 was sending representatives to take control of the concentration camps and to compel the survivors to go to Palestine. In fact there’s a very important book about this by Yosef Grodzinsky. It came out first in Hebrew and was eventually reviewed pretty favorably even in Israel.8 Do you know Hebrew?

KPO: No, I don’t.

NC: Well the translation of the title [ed. Chomer Enoshi Tov] would be something like “Good Human Material.” What he means is that the Zionist emissaries had a doctrine that able-bodied men and women between 18 and 35 had to be compelled to go to Palestine where they would be cannon-fodder for the coming conflict. Now the others they didn’t care much about and even undermined efforts to save children and so on. Well, all of this was going on in the immediate wake of the holocaust involving the survivors. No concern about them. You look through the 1950s, there’s virtually no discussion of the holocaust. The first major scholarly work, uh, what’s his name?

KPO: Raul Hilberg?

NC: Hilberg’s, yeah. When Hilberg’s book The Destruction of the [European] Jews came out, he couldn’t find a publisher at first because people didn’t want it.9 Why should we talk about this stuff? There was a little interest when the [Adolf] Eichmann trial came but the event that turned the holocaust into the major issue of modern history was Israel’s 1967 war. When did holocaust museums start spreading over the country? When does Elie Wiesel become kind of a figure of everyone’s imagination? All of this is after, you know, programs in schools teaching holocaust studies. It’s post-1967 when the holocaust began to be used as a justification for Israel’s occupation and for U.S. support for it. It’s an ugly story. There are holocaust museums all over the country. Take a look at the museums of the destruction of Native Americans or the slave labor camps for the blacks. You don’t have them. It’s post-1967. Nothing happened in ’67 apart from the Israeli takeover of the occupied territories, when you started to require justification for the Israeli occupation and American support for it. It’s not a pretty story, but yes, since then and only since then the holocaust has been kind of the benchmark for what counts as an atrocity and My Lai, as I say, is another story. So I think it’s really worth looking at these cases closely. Take Elie Wiesel for example, considered a moral hero. He was asked by a fellow Nobel laureate10 to approach political leaders in Israel, who he knows of course, privately—nothing public—just privately, to suggest to them that they withdraw Israel’s critical participation in genocidal atrocities in Guatemala, and they were genocidal. He refused. He later said why in an interview in Israel and I have this in print. He said “I can’t criticize Israel, even in private. If Israel is engaged in genocide, I’m afraid I can’t say anything about it.”11 This is the great moral hero. I mean when you begin to look at these things, the record is shocking.

KPO: I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I did want to speak a bit about the media. One of my chapters will be looking at the media, using Manufacturing Consent and also Niklas Luhmann’s work. Are you familiar with Luhmann at all? He was a German social theorist. Systems theory?

NC: No, I don’t know him.

KPO: Ok. I was just curious because he published his own book, The Reality of the Mass Media, several years after the publication of Manufacturing Consent but he oddly doesn’t talk about your book at all.12 In any case, I wonder if you can tell me how one might apply the propaganda model to social media. If you use Twitter or Facebook, this sort of thing. There’s a lot of rather overblown claims about the supposed capacity for political activism, democratic revolutions and all of this, but I wonder how you might apply the propaganda model to social media given that some of the filters—advertising revenue for example—are not as obvious.

NC: It’s not applicable. Yeah, I don’t think the propaganda model is a very good model for those media. I don’t participate in them I should say. I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not interested, but I observe it of course. It’s a major phenomenon.

KPO: But you do have a fan-page on Facebook!

NC: Yeah, I do but I don’t have anything to do with it. I probably have Twitter accounts too, but I don’t know anything about them. But I think it’s a mixed story. I mean it is a useful organizing tool, undoubtedly. Almost all organizing goes through this media today. It’s a good way to keep in communication with people. It’s a good way for parents to figure out what their children are doing. My daughter uses it and so on. But it has a downside. I mean, I think it imposes a superficiality on human interchanges and on intellectual culture. It kind of directs people towards superficiality and lacks the intimacy of face-to-face relationships. We’re not automatons. Having a hundred friends on Facebook who write you a five-line letter when you say that you’re crossing the street is not friendship and the kinds of communication that take place are necessarily superficial and I think that has a dangerous impact on society and the participants in these systems. So it has its utility. It also has, I think, negative aspects. But I don’t think the propaganda model applies.

KPO: Alright, then perhaps I’ll raise a few points of objection that Niklas Luhmann doesn’t bring up in his own work but which another scholar, Hans-Georg Moeller, suggests as problems Luhmann might have raised had he spent time considering your argument in Manufacturing Consent. First of all, according to your theory, Moeller argues, “the sins of the mass media are to be blamed on a group of evil people. If only the powerful politicians and rich capitalists would stop manipulating the media, then everything would be okay.” He says that you reduce the problems of the media “to the ethical errors of some certain human beings.”13

NC: Well the trouble is, whoever this is didn’t even read the first chapter which discusses this and points out specifically that this is not a theory of individuals, of evil people. It is a study of the institutional structure of the media system which has almost nothing to do with the individuals who are in it. It’s not a fact about evil individuals that the major media are corporations. That has nothing to do with evil individuals. The fact that corporations, in their usual behavior—say General Motors—try to maximize profit, is not a criticism of the C.E.O. of General Motors. It’s a comment about the institutions and the way they function and in fact the legal system, even the legal system in which they function, also the market system. So there’s absolutely nothing to do with evil individuals. Change the names, it will come out the same. It’s an institutional critique. If it’s wrong, fine. Let’s see where it’s wrong. But as a descriptive account there are no conspiracies. There is nothing other than… In fact, what we point out is that this is basically a classical guided free market picture. I think that’s what it is.

KPO: He also says that you “assume that if manipulation stopped, then the mass media would present the real reality.” You “assume that there is one correct version” of a news story “and that this one correct version can potentially be presented by the ethically correct mass media.”14 Moreover, he also complains that you do not acknowledge your own paradoxical role as critic operating within the very system you are challenging—the mass media itself—relying on it for sources, quotations, etc.

NC: Yeah, I don’t know what that means. We acknowledge it openly. We quote the media. What more is there to acknowledge? That’s perfectly transparent.

KPO: I suppose he means how the filters you describe may or may not apply to you as well, in the publication of your own book for example.

NC: Well, we do discuss the publication of our own book. For example, our first book, our first joint book, 20,000 copies were published by a small but profitable publishing company. This is before Manufacturing Consent. It was called Counterrevolutionary Violence, which you don’t know about, but we do discuss it.15 It’s our first book. It was published by a flourishing, small publisher which was owned by a conglomerate, Warner Communications, later Time Warner. An executive of the big corporation saw advertising copy and wasn’t happy about it so he asked to see a copy of the book. When he read the copy of the book he demanded the publisher remove it from publication. When they refused he put the publisher out of business, destroyed all their stock, not just our book. Destroyed all their stock to prevent them from distributing our book. Well, was there any criticism? This was brought to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, other civil libertarians. They didn’t care because it was not state censorship. It was corporate censorship and the doctrine of free speech in the United States is that corporate censorship is perfectly legitimate. Just as corporate money is just like if you give a dollar to somebody. That’s the doctrine. So corporate censorship, putting a publisher out of business, destroying all their stock to prevent the distribution of one book, is not a violation of freedom of speech. Well we do discuss that.

I don’t know what more to say about our… We also don’t say anything about… You know, if the institutional structure remains you expect it to act like this. I mean it’s like a critique of the market system which say “well, if only the C.E.O. of General Electric would decide to give all the profits to the workers everything would be fine.” He can’t do that. If he tried to do that he’d be out as C.E.O. These are institutional analyses. Now there are people who don’t want institutional analysis because it tells you about the reality of the society and their own role in it. So I think those kinds of criticisms are revealing from that point of view. Incidentally, very few people have read that book. Most people have only read the first chapter. But if you read that book, about a third of it—the last part—is a defense of the media. It’s a defense of the media against an attack by Freedom House.

KPO: It did strike me as a misguided critique, but I wanted to hear your response. Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me.

NC: Ok. It’s a very interesting topic.

1. Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

2. Russell Baker, “A Heroic Historian on Heroes,” New York Review of Books, July 11, 2009.

3. Chomsky gave the figure of 80 million, but he cites the lower figure of 18 million in his book, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 283 n21.

4. LBJ’s full quote: “There are 3 billion people in the world and we have only 200 million of them. We are outnumbered 15 to 1. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.” See his Remarks to American and Korean Servicemen at Camp Stanley, Korea,” November 1, 1966

5. Noam Chomsky, “After Pinkville,” New York Review of Books, January 1, 1970.

6. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999); Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Picador, 2000).

7. The Jewish leadership in Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948.

8. Yosef Grodzinsky, In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews and Zionists in the Aftermath of World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).

9. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

10. Chomsky is referring to a letter sent to Wiesel by Salvador Luria, a professor at M.I.T. and 1969 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

11. Chomsky is obviously paraphrasing here. When Wiesel was asked by the Israeli press about the letter he received from Salvador Luria, he “sighed” and said that he had not responded. “I usually answer at once,” he explained, “but what can I answer to him?” Cited in Mickey Z, “Elie Wiesel’s Strange Parade: Mad Man or Commissar,”Counterpunch, July 7, 2004. In another interview with Wiesel, he explains more explicitly his attitude toward criticizing Israel: “I am not an Israeli. I am a diaspora Jew, and the price I pay, the price I chose to pay for not living in Israel, especially in times of danger, is not to criticize Israel from outside its borders.” Cited in Mark Chmiel, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 101.

12. Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, trans. Kathleen Cross (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

13. Hans-Georg Moeller, Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), 144.

14. Ibid.

15. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (Andover, MA: Warner Modular Publications, 1973).

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

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

“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