Tonight at Brooklyn College

8 Feb

“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.

24 Responses to “Tonight at Brooklyn College”

  1. Ian Zuckerman February 8, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    Wonderful post, Corey. Eloquent and very apt.

  2. Barbara Mazor February 8, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    Dear Prof. Robin –

    In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, will you please explain what it means for the Department to “co-sponsor” an event?

    Did the Poli Sci department provide funding for the event in any way? Either for the use of the facilities, or for the speaker’s expenses? Did the speakers receive fees for their appearance? If so, who paid their fees?

    Thank you,

    • Corey Robin February 8, 2013 at 10:44 am #

      Co-sponsoring merely means that we add our name to the event. We did not provide any funding. I have no idea if the speakers received fees or if they did, who paid for them. As I have said repeatedly, we did not organize, plan, initiate, or conceive of this event. If you have any questions about it I suggest you direct them to the organizers.

      In the interests of transparency and full disclosure, will you now please explain to me if you ever directed any of these sorts of questions to the organizers of this event at Brooklyn College as well as the administration of Brooklyn College? At an event where the invited speaker, who spoke on campus in the library of all places, said, “No people has shown itself so morally sick as the Palestinians have.” And if you didn’t pose these questions then, please explain to me why you didn’t.

      http://mondoweiss.net/2011/03/peter-king-hearings-come-to-flatbush-david-horowitz-stokes-anti-muslim-sentiment-at-brooklyn-college.html

      • Michael Brenner February 8, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

        “Co-sponsoring merely means that we add our name to the event.”

        Hi Professor,

        I’ve followed this closely, and as I’ve told those in my community who have protested, the only question that matters to me is whether the department has a non-partisan policy with regard to sponsorship. For instance, if the group that brought David Horowitz to campus had asked you to co-sponsor the event, would the PoliSci department have done so? David Horowitz, of whom I’m certainly no fan, certainly says distasteful things, but so has Omar Barghouti. Indeed, the reason many find BDS objectionable is precisely its habit of demonizing Israelis, rather than just critiquing policies. I’m sure you’re familiar with the rhetoric I’m talking about.

        I’m also curious as to whether you had a position on efforts by BDS proponents to ban Israeli speakers (like Michael Oren, for instance, at UC Irvine) from campus.

        What is your response to reports that some Jewish students have said they’ve felt uncomfortable on campus and that they worry they’ll be punished by PoliSci faculty for their opinions?

        In the event that pro-Israel students on campus request PoliSci sponsorship of speakers representing right-wing pro-Israel viewpoints (say, a panel of speakers who support annexation of the West Bank), can we count on the PoliSci department to sponsor the event?

        Thank you in advance.

      • Corey Robin February 8, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

        Michael, you claim to have followed this controversy closely, but clearly not closely enough. I’ve addressed many of these questions on my blog, the president and others have addressed others of these questions elsewhere. I’m not going to repeat myself.

      • hophmi February 8, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

        Hi Professor,

        The President has taken considerable pains to draw a distinction between sponsorship and endorsement. I thought that was quite reasonable and appreciated her statement. But then, the Jewish Press posted a flyer from the organizers of the event listing the PoliSci department as a sponsor. Can you explain why? http://www.jewishpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/BC-BDS-flyer.jpg

        I also note that every other sponsor on this sheet is a known proponent of BDS or otherwise involved in pro-Palestinian advocacy. Do you not see why some people might mistake this for endorsement?

        In addition, both you and Paisley Currah have today suggested that you strongly endorse what Judith Butler said, which includes a fairly standard explanation of what BDS is and claimed (unfairly, I think), that there was a widespread campaign to cancel the event.

        You also have not dealt with the removal of pro-Israel students from the event, which even Alex Kane suggests on Mondoweiss was inappropriate given that no one heard them heckling.

        Neither have you dealt with allegations made by some BC students that they’ve been made to feel as though they would be punished by certain professors for expressing pro-Israel sentiments in class and on papers because of the overwhelming pro-Palestinian curriculums in certain Middle Eastern studies courses. I’m not validating that critique; I took classes with pro-Palestinian professors at college and felt no pressure at all, but I also did not generally use class as a platform to voice my political opinions, and I have encountered professors who said, in not so many words, that students who did not regurgitate the ideology expressed in class would see it reflected in their grade. That was my experience when I took a Critical Race Theory class at Vassar and again in law school when I took a Law and Literature class. And in the case of the Critical Race Theory class in particular, I loved the professor. I think you, as a political science professor, can well recognize the power dynamic at work in a classroom; students who feel this way are unlikely to criticize someone who controls their grade.

        There is an optics issue here. As I’ve told people in my community (including Lew Fidler) who, IMHO, have done little but provides lots of publicity for the BDS movement by seeming to favor censoring the event, or controlling what points of view the college “sponsors,” they look like censors.

        Your strong endorsement of Butler’s speech here and links to Mondoweiss, one of the most anti-Israel sites on the web as well as a site where antisemitic comments are regularly published, in addition to Professor Currah’s endorsement of Butler’s speech on facebook, seems to validate the views of those who believe that sponsorship really is endorsement here, or at least that professors feel no responsibility to restraint themselves from exercising their agreement with the viewpoints expressed at the event.

        That is a change from when I was in school at Vassar from 1997-2001, and took part in organizing a panel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that included people from across the political spectrum. At that time, professors were very reluctant to publicly express their political viewpoints on this conflict because they generally felt that it was inappropriate to do so.

      • Barbara Mazor February 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

        Thank you for answering my question.

        No, I did not inquire. The main objection that was presented in the press was the PoliSci’s department’s co-sponsorship. I only asked you, as it was convenient, because you are holding a public platform for discussion. I simply wanted to know what “co-sponsorship” means. Your department head is reported to have said that “co-sponsorship” doesn’t equal endorsement. That is all. I just wanted to know.

        As for David Horowitz, I am unfamiliar with his content and was unaware that he spoke at BC.

        I hope I have answered your questions.

  3. Stanley Heller February 8, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Was there video of the event? Barghouti’s complete talk is here: http://youtu.be/QBmDj5g-C-o

  4. AllHat February 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    Plus ca change: In 1962 CCNY barred communist Ben Davis from speaking as part of his tour of Harvard, Amherst, Oberlin, Columbia,etc. CCNY students protested, & as Murray Kempton wrote in his column, it wasn’t because they loved Ben Davis: “They simply know they are being cheated. Free education is for the underprivileged. Ben Davis can speak at Columbia University any time he is invited. Columbia University is managed by private industry, presumably reactionary. City College is managed by government, self-certifiably progressive. Ben Davis cannot speak at City College. City College students are wards of government . . .”

  5. Worlds of Law February 8, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Brooklyn College not only provided an outstanding opportunity for its students by holding fast to its educational mission, but also upheld the best ideals of the American constitutional tradition, showing precisely why we protect the freedom of speech and the principle of academic freedom based on it so vigorously. A fine moment indeed. No matter what their views on BDS, I expect this will be the thing many of Brooklyn College’s students remember most from their time there. What an education.

    • hophmi February 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      And the question is, would he say the same thing about David Horowitz?

      • Worlds of Law February 8, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

        Certainly if a group of politicians threatened retaliation against a university for providing an opportunity for David Horowitz or any other speaker to express his or her views about an important, controversial topic–particularly if the threat was accompanied rhetorically by a spurious, completely selective demand for “balance”–I would say precisely the same thing. And I would say so with all the greater pleasure if what resulted from a department’s defense of one of the foundational values of a liberal democratic society, academic freedom, was more speech by proponents and opponents of the underlying issue being debated. And that’s what seems to have happened.

  6. Corey Robin February 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Hophmi: You write, “In addition, both you and Paisley Currah have today suggested that you strongly endorse what Judith Butler said.” I’ve suggested no such thing. If you’re not going to take greater pains to get the simplest things right you can’t possibly expect me to respond to your barrage of claims and questions (many of which have already been addressed.)

    • hophmi February 8, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      Professor Robin, you could afford to be a little less strident in your tone. Both of you posted Butler’s speech this morning. You strongly praised her and linked to her speech, as did Professor Currah. And now that I’ve pointed that out, you’re getting nasty.

      • Corey Robin February 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

        You’re going to get one more shot at this, and then I’m done. You initially said that I “strongly endorse what Butler said.” I called you on it, and now you’re backing down — and rightly so — to the claim that I “strongly praised her.” There’s a world of difference between those two claims, even if you want to act is there isn’t. The first was completely wrong, the second closer to the truth. I take great care to make sure I get what my readers say right; you ought to do the same. And when you don’t, you ought to either admit to you’re wrong or move on. Because you’ve done neither for yourself, I’m going to do both for you: say you were wrong, and then move on. It’s been fun.

  7. John Caldwell February 8, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Professor Robin,

    Thank you so much for the messages you have been sharing about this event. While not happy to see the pressure brought to bear on your department, I am gratified to see you and your colleagues, and especially your president, standing courageously for free speech and free minds. This is what I would expect of a liberal education, but sadly it is too rare. Speech has become a commodity that can be bought and sold and it seems that those who have the power of the purse believe that they can buy freedom from thought for themselves and others.

    While not in the academy, I can assure you that similar dynamics are at work in the mainline denomination in which I labor as a pastor.

    I encourage you to keep up the good and difficult work of naming aloud the things that go without saying and of helping your students and readers to grasp the possibility of seeing the world differently. Every revolution begins in the imagination.

    Peace,
    Rev. John Caldwell, PhD

  8. zenner41 February 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    It seems to me that, in general, the people who have taken strong offense at the occurrence of this event and your department’s co-sponsorship of it are in a state in which their emotions about the situation in the Middle East are boiling over so furiously that they just cannot think rationally, and therefore are constantly failing to understand what you and the other writers who are trying to set them straight are trying to tell them.

    I admire your patience in responding to them, and congratulate everyone involved in the event for an apparently successful and educating evening. Wish I could have been there.

    • hophmi February 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      That’s true for some, zenner41. But there are definitely some who take issue because they feel the PoliSci department at BC is being weaselly about their sponsorship of the event and hiding behind a formal distinction to excuse something they know is problematic.

      The proof in the pudding is that this distinction between sponsoring and endorsing the event seems to have been lost even on the organizers, who circulated flyers indicating that the PoliSci department had indeed endorsed the event.

      That’s the problem. I don’t get the sense that Professor Robin understands that not everyone is hip to distinctions like these, particularly when professors are not shy about expressing their political views in public. He thinks I’m attacking him. I’m not. I’m trying to explain to him that when he constantly links to BDS websites like Mondoweiss, when his chair is trying to get other departments to sponsor a politically controversial event, when, the next day, he’s issuing strong praise for the speakers and linking one of their speeches, including its long passage endorsing BDS, when he’s additionally posting about David Horowitz spoke in the library (even though there no evidence anyone asked an academic department to sponsor Horowitz, and Horowitz’s main issue is not Israel), and when he gets defensive, it’s a fair conclusion to suggest that he’s sympathetic to the cause being presented, that’s he’s strongly partisan, and that he is likely to give students who disagree with him a hard time.

      Which is why professors might think about exercising some discretion and not tip their political hands publicly in this way.

      • donald February 10, 2013 at 1:34 am #

        Not very nice, hophmi, the way you lump everyone at Mondoweiss, the front page posters and all the commenters, into the same category. I happen to agree that a few of the commenters at MW say creepy things–that’s true of people on both sides. It’s not true of the front page posts.

        And anyway, some level of anti-Arab racism or bigotry is usually present when Israel’s behavior is defended and even in some places where it is criticized. Open Zion’s comment section is full of anti-Palestinian racism, for instance. NYT pieces critical of Israel are never couched in terms explicitly sympathetic to Palestinians–it’s always about the danger posed to Israel itself in the long run. And most American politicians seem incapable of saying anything that doesn’t reek of double standards on human rights when it comes to this subject.

  9. Erstwhile Anthropologist February 9, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    “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.”

    Thanks for reminding me of my privilege. I had never given much thought to the lack of speakers given my own good fortune in attending elite universities. A necessary reminder.

    It is good to see Judith Butler speak our against freedom of speech deprivation, intimidation tactics, and injustice at other universities. It would also be great if she would speak out more against these issues, and especially freedom of speech deprivation and intimidation tactics by Berkeley administrators, on her own campus: especially coming out of her home university’s anthropology department and particularly in light of the appointment of Nicholas Dirks as the next Berkeley Chancellor (especially given the protest letter here: http://mondoweiss.net/2012/12/chancellor-falsehood-criticizing.html).

    The Brooklyn College (Political Science Department) victory for free speech is a reminder of what happens when those who speak out against injustice and intimidation tactics can only prevail when supported en masse and by powerful allies willing to speak out in support, and are not left to fend for themselves against the powerful abusing their power and wielding it like a club to silence unethically those with whom they do not agree.

    • hophmi February 9, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      “It is good to see Judith Butler speak our against freedom of speech deprivation, intimidation tactics, and injustice at other universities.”

      While she’s at it, maybe she can say something about the way students at UC Irvine attempted to have Michael Oren disinvited from campus and then tried to systematically interrupt him so that he couldn’t speak.

      This is not a victory for free speech. No one suggested that Judith Butler or Omar Barghouti should not have the right to speak at Brooklyn. It is, in fact, the BDS movement, which supports a boycott of Israeli academics, who most opposes free speech values, and their advocates in the United States, who have repeatedly tried to intimidate and restrict pro-Zionist speakers on campus.

  10. Corey Robin February 11, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    The discussion here is rapidly reaching a point of diminishing return, with just a few individuals participating in it and at increasing levels of vitriol rather than engagement. I’ve stayed out of it, mostly in the interests of allowing people a forum to air their various opinions and grievances. But this blog is more than an echo-chamber for protagonists in the Israel-Palestine conflict, so I’ll be closing down the discussion sometime today. Have you last rounds, and then we’re done.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Protest, Engage and Discuss: Brooklyn College, Free Speech and Me - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education - February 9, 2013

    [...] that nuanced discussion happened at Brooklyn College on February 8: read his account of the event here. Judith Butler’s excellent remarks on anti-Semitism and the polarization of the debate over [...]

  2. Why Tenured "Radical"? And Other Political Confessions - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education - February 14, 2013

    [...] I wish I had never written about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) event last weekend? Perhaps, but not because I thought I was wrong to ask questions about the effects of academic and [...]

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