I have here in my hand a list of 205

15 Sep

AMCHA, an organization whose self-declared purpose is to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campus, has a list.

A list of 218 professors who have called for the boycott of Israel. Which is somehow a threat to Jewish students on campus.

And they wonder why we call it McCarthyism.

Several folks have suggested that all of us who are academics, from graduate students to endowed chairs, write the organizers of the initiative and urge them to add our names to the list. As an act of solidarity. I think it’s a good idea, so I’m going to do it, and I encourage you to do the same.

Here are the folks and email addresses you should write:

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Lecturer, University of California at Santa Cruz, tammi@amchainitiative.org

Leila Beckwith, Professor Emeritus, UCLA, leila@amchainitiative.org


Update (11:30 am)

Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Professors Rossman-Benjamin and Beckwith:

I noticed this morning that you listed on the AMCHA website 218 professors who are a threat to Jewish students (“Thank you for your actions to protect Jewish students”). As a practicing Jew, I think your list is abhorrent. As a citizen, I think it’s pure McCarthyism. As an act of solidarity with the professors who have been unfairly maligned by you and your list, I’d like you to add my name to it. Below please find my identification.

Corey Robin

How Do I Deal With Israel/Palestine in the Classroom? I Don’t.

15 Sep

A long while ago I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me how I handle the issue of Israel/Palestine in my classes. I told him I’m a political theorist who teaches the canon and, occasionally, the first-semester sequence of constitutional law (that is, not the Bill of Rights part, but the part on the rise of national institutions, questions of federalism, and so on). Israel/Palestine never comes up. And though I could be wrong about this (my memory is not what it used to be), I don’t think I’ve ever even had a conversation about Israel/Palestine with a student. And the truth is: I wouldn’t want to. While I care about this issue passionately as a citizen and as a Jew, it’s not something that interests me as a teacher. Nor am I  interested in what my students think about it. (I also never talk in the classroom about activism or civic engagement or the need to get involved politically—another set of topics that have zero interest for me as a teacher.) The reporter couldn’t believe me. Just one more, albeit extreme, instance of people not understanding the difference between what we do inside the classroom and what we do outside the classroom.

You could listen to Chancellor Wise on civility…

14 Sep

…or you could listen to John Maynard Keynes:

Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking.

H/t Paul Krugman

Settler Society, Global Empire: Aziz Rana and Nikhil Singh on the American State

14 Sep

Aziz Rana, who’s a professor of law at Cornell, is one of my favorite of the younger generation of political theorists who are transforming our understanding of some of the basic paradigms of political science. I discovered his work a few years ago, when I got a copy of his first book The Two Faces of Freedom. That book just came out in paperback. Since then, he’s been kind enough to share with me several chapters from his new project on a different tradition of American constitutionalism, one that we might call anti-constitutionalism or an alternative constitutionalism, that seeks to take down the text from its pedestal and put in its place, and that explores it came to its position atop that pedestal. He’s one of those theorists from whom, whatever he writes, I learn and come away with all sorts of new thoughts in my head.

In August, Jacobin published a really great interview with him, conducted by Nikhil Singh, about The Two Faces of Freedom. Some excerpts here; I urge you to buy the book.

• • • • • 

I argue that for all the basic transformations in the US in the twentieth century — from the rise of the administrative state to civil rights successes — the country’s internal institutions and external practices have retained settler structures. A key theme of my historical account involves the rejection of the idea that, even if settlerism oriented early American history, it has little to say about the present.

For many left-liberals, a common move is to recognize the country’s oppressive roots, but then to argue that through a combination of the New Deal in the 1930s and the so-called Second Reconstruction in the 1960s, the nation was in effect fundamentally transformed on free and equal grounds. So they reject a conservative reading of the founding as perfect and unmarred, but nonetheless participate in the overall creedal story of self-fulfillment and redemption.

My view, by contrast, is that creedal arguments gained prominence out of a sense of ideological uncertainty that enveloped the United States in the early twentieth century. In particular, the closing of the frontier and the country’s emergence onto the global stage with the Spanish American War raised basic questions about the future of colonial settlement as well as the meaning of American power in the world.

In this context, many American elites began to rally around a specific reading of American universalism as the defining characteristic of the community. This view separated European imperialism on the one hand from American global influence on the other, with the latter depicted as benign tutelage fundamentally in keeping with the basic interests of nonwhite peoples.

Such civic arguments steadily reimagined the country in more inclusive terms. But, critically, they also provided an ideological framework that allowed classically privileged American insiders to preserve the basic institutional structures of the polity — those of an increasingly completed settler project — while at the same time asserting greater authority internationally.

As a result, although the country’s identity shifted from a settler to a civic nation, the roots persisted — Americans never properly confronted the country’s colonial infrastructure or its imperial legacies.

Furthermore, all of this occurs in the context of an expansive bureaucratic state, a lasting institutional legacy of mid-twentieth century American political development. This administrative state is organized around an increasingly centralized presidential system and is both infused with corporate interests as well as insulated from mobilized popular pressure. I should note that I am avowedly statist in my politics; I believe strongly in the democratic potential of both the state and its bureaucratic infrastructure.

So the problem for me is not state power as such, but the corporatist mode of state power that dominates American politics. The rise of this particular form means that, paradoxically, just as marginalized communities in the past half century have gained formal rights and greater electoral power, the public’s overall capacity to direct large-scale economic and political institutions has seen a sharp decline.

The second type of pushback is that by describing the internal practice of self-rule within settler society as a rich account of freedom, I am, in effect, legitimating settler practices (the concern you highlight). I think this is a fair worry and one that I’ve struggled with.

My basic theoretical position is that freedom and subordination are inextricably connected to one another in any historical context. Moreover, groups understand the meaning of freedom in particular conditions in relation to those modes of oppression that are prevalent on the ground.

For me, the expansive notion of freedom as self-rule — as a condition of popular authority over economic and political life — which emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century, developed precisely out of close proximity to its living negations: slavery and native expropriation. Settler laborers in particular came to see freedom as more than just formal political and legal rights, but actual control over the conditions of production, economic independence, and democratic self-government. This was a robust vision, albeit deeply circumscribed given that the heart of settler ideology was that such freedom at root required native removal and exploited labor.

Thus, to universalize settler liberty — as I argue for in the book — would require a fundamental restructuring of American life. This is something radical critics themselves perceived at various moments in American history. It would mean thinking about how a democratic principle could actually govern all institutional sites and provide all communities with meaningful economic and political power.

Such an effort would transform, root and branch, settler legacies and living practices: from recognizing Indian sovereignty to fundamentally altering the structure of the economy to challenging the border as a closed barrier. The key thing to note is that such freedom, although emerging from a settler past, would no longer perpetuate settlerism.

This speaks to what I see as the dialectical character of freedom, where the conflict between an initial account of liberty and its opposition produces something new. And similarly, I would add that I do not believe that if we ever “universalized” settler freedom this would mean the end of subordination once and for all. Rather, in keeping with the dialectical vision, even successful projects of emancipation generate new legal and political orders that knit together secured liberties with emerging hierarchies.

First, a remarkable feature of US domestic conversations about capitalism and economic inequality is the extent to which they are often separated from conversations about the application of US power abroad. As just one example, take the issue of immigration and immigrant rights, a focal point of new labor organizing on the one hand and conservative reaction on the other.

The overwhelming tendency is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place. The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied to patterns of colonization and empire that stitch together the Global North and the Global South, as well as to the recent security politics of the US and Europe across the post-colonial world.

It’s directly against company policy for an employee to use blood to write “revenge” on the conference room walls

13 Sep


‘After the eighth such incident this year, Vista Consulting Partners human resources director Beth Shumaker sent out a company-wide email Thursday reminding employees not to scrawl the word “revenge” in blood across any surface in the conference room. “Most of you are already familiar with this rule, but just as a refresher, it’s directly against company policy for an employee to use blood to write ‘revenge’ on the conference room walls, door, or table,” wrote Shumaker, emphasizing that it did not matter if the word was rendered in human or animal blood. “Remember that we all use this room, and it’s inconsiderate to force your colleagues to delay their meeting to scrub ‘revenge’ off the whiteboard or windows.” Shumaker added that any employee who wanted revenge should simply carve the word into the forehead of his or her supervisor.’

The Onion

Six Statements on Salaita in Search of a Thesis

12 Sep

UI President Bob Easter: “Professor Salaita’s approach indicates he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting viewpoints would be given equal consideration.”

All evidence to the contrary.

UI Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald: “Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald said it wasn’t an easy decision for him, but the board’s duty is to ensure that students have a campus ‘where they feel that their views will be respected and not hated.’ He said he would vote similarly if a professor had posted something homophobic or racist, noting the university has to be an inclusive campus.”

And what about the views of those students who are homophobic and racist? Are we to respect and not hate those views, too?

UIUC student Josh Cooper: “I personally know many students who would feel intimidated by a professor who endorses violence.”

Would they feel intimidated by a professor who had endorsed the Iraq War? Or the killing of Osama bin Laden? Or the Israeli war on Gaza?

UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise: Prior to his being fired, Steven Salaita’s appointment went through “many procedural steps, including my initial approval.”

So the initial approval for his appointment went as high as her. I don’t think that’s been publicly revealed before. This is not going to help the university in court.

Chair of UI Board of Trustees Chris Kennedy: “I think there’s a lot of case law about what you should do when this sort of thing occurs. So we’ll try to be consistent with best practices in the university environment and the corporate world as well.”

When this sort of thing occurs? The AAUP had to reach back as far as 1964 to find even a remotely comparable precedent for “this sort of thing.” No wonder Kennedy wants to look to “the corporate world as well.”

Wearer of Many Hats Cary Nelson: A $1 million settlement with Steven Salaita “would not be unreasonable.”

He’s baaaaaack.

All quotations compiled from stories in yesterday’s News Gazette and today’s Inside Higher Ed.

Why Arendt might not have read Benito Cereno (if she did indeed not read Benito Cereno)

12 Sep

For a change of pace…

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.

Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)

I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.

Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.

Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.

If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.

In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught usBenito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)

Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.

It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,939 other followers