“What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war?” So said Judith Butler tonight at Brooklyn College, in one of the most moving statements of the evening.
Three quick observations from the event.
First, all predictions to the contrary, the republic, the Jewish people, and Brooklyn College survived.
Second, Butler and Barghouti both—but really Butler in particular—evinced a genuine sense of place in their remarks. Butler clearly had spent the week thinking about this controversy. She drilled down and spoke directly to it, using it as an opportunity to reflect upon words and their power—an old theme for Butler, but given a new cast and urgency by the events leading up to tonight’s talk.
Third, what got lost in this entire controversy is that Brooklyn College is a real place with real students—many of whom never get a chance to hear an Omar Barghouti or a Judith Butler. At more elite universities, such events are routine (in just the last three days, Barghouti has spoken at Penn, Yale, and UC Irvine). At a place like Brooklyn College, they are precious and rare. They provide our students with something that students elsewhere take for granted: a chance to reflect and think about politics and culture with someone who doesn’t talk down to them, who models in her speech what politics at its best can be about, who makes demands on her audience, who shows that there is a world of words beyond war.
I’ve heard lots of criticism of our decision to co-sponsor, but none tonight seems more fatuous and ill-conceived—none more out of touch with the reality on the ground—than the claim that somehow we in the political science department were betraying our educational mission by attaching our name to this event. The word educate derives from the Latin educare: to draw out, to bring out, of the self. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who attended this event tonight, and who witnessed the students who put it on and the students who sat in the audience, not seeing how they were pulled out of themselves and drawn into the wider world. Whether it was the moderator warming up to her role (“Please ask your question”), the anti-BDS student working toward formulating his critique, or the audience wrestling with what they were hearing.
I don’t expect our critics ever to understand any of this: they bang about in a world of permanent polemic (and none more so than those who think that they don’t). But for everyone else, and especially my department, tonight should be remembered as one of Brooklyn College’s finest moments.