As the attacks on the BDS movement and the ASA boycott escalate, the arguments grow wilder.
It’s no longer enough, it seems, to make unfounded claims that the academic boycott violates academic freedom. The new line of march is that mere advocacy of the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.
What’s more, it’s not crazies who are peddling this claim; as Haaretz reports, it’s coming from the heart of the academic establishment.
“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past Modern Language Association president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”
If it’s true that merely calling for a boycott shuts down the free exchange of ideas, it seems logical that such calls should be prohibited. Not only prohibited, but punished.
One prominent critic of the BDS movement, Edward Beck, makes just that argument in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post.
Beck begins from the premise that the successful vote for the ASA boycott demonstrates that defenders of Israel can no longer wait for its opponents to act; Israel’s defenders must go on the offensive, preventing the virus from spreading further.
To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.
What does that mean in practice?
It means that every academic who opposes academic boycotts for any reason, whether it be purely academic terms or political or other reasons, must work within his or her own institution, discipline and professional society to develop the codified organizational and institutional policies that state in language that is clear and bold that the group will not entertain any proposals for academic boycotts based on national origin or institutional affiliation because such resolutions are discriminatory, may violate legal and tax statutes and are based on the notion of collective punishment, and such, are disruptive to the flow of academic discourse and research and anathema to the basic concept of academic freedom.
The policy also has to state sanctions for individual members engaging in such behavior, as this would be a violation of institutional or organization policy and regarded as academically unethical.
Read that language carefully. No academic institution is to entertain or consider a proposal for a boycott. Presumably this is to be codified in a set of bylaws or a faculty code of conduct, though Beck does not say. What he does say is that it is not the boycott itself that violates academic freedom; it is the “resolution” for a boycott. The vote for a boycott, in other words, interferes with the basic campus activities of research and discussion.
That policy must be enforced with sanctions—Beck doesn’t specify the sanctions but presumably these could include anything from a reprimand in one’s file to being fired—on any individual faculty member “engaging in such behavior.”
But what exactly is “such behavior” that would warrant the sanction? At first, I thought Beck meant an individual faculty member engaging in a boycott. So my personal refusal to attend a conference in Israel, because it is in Israel, would qualify.
But the antecedent for “engaging in such behavior” is not the boycott itself but “such resolutions.” Beck, remember, wants the defenders of Israel to move beyond reacting to boycotts that are happening; in fact, he wants to move beyond successful votes for boycotts. He wants to head those votes off at the pass, to prevent them from becoming votes at all.
The only way to make sense of what Beck is saying is that he thinks individuals who advocate for boycotts ought to be sanctioned by their universities and professional associations.
Thus, if I push my college or professional association to adopt a BDS resolution, or publicly proclaim my intention to vote for one (with the clear purpose of persuading others to do the same), I am “engaging in such behavior.” If I merely call for a boycott, to use Professor Berman’s language, I am “engaging in such behavior.”
Berman says he’s not willing to go as far as sanctions: “But I don’t think I would want to elevate the principle that political statements should be grounds for academic sanctions.” It’s not clear why he thinks this: given what Berman said about mere advocacy impinging on academic freedom, it would seem entirely appropriate to punish such advocacy. After all, if I walk into the classroom of my colleague next door, shouting and screaming nonsense, being needlessly disruptive and preventing her from teaching her students, I would be subject to disciplinary action. For the very reason that my activity prevents the free flow of ideas and communication that is the essence of campus life. So if the mere call for a boycott does essentially the same thing, why shouldn’t it be punished?
Who knows? But the mere fact that we’re even having this discussion at all should tell us how far down the road of repression the opponents of the ASA boycott are willing to go—all in the name of academic freedom.
These bizarreries of freedom being squelched in the name of freedom remind me of nothing so much as arguments that were common during the McCarthy era.
Deploying similar chains of extended causality, anticommunists—including a great many liberals—argued that the problem with the Communist Party in the United States was not that it had attempted a violent overthrow of the US government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized an attempt to violently overthrow the government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized a movement that would attempt to violently overthrow the government; it hadn’t even done that.
No, the real crime of the Communist Party, as the Supreme Court put it so beautifully in Dennis v. United States, was that it had organized a movement that advocated, and sought to teach its members, the notion that when the time was right, at some completely undefined point in the future, it would be entirely justified and appropriate, indeed necessary and obligatory, to attempt a violent overthrow of the government.
In making this argument, the Supreme Court drew from a particular definition of political speech crimes, which were found in the Smith Act, the 1940 statute upon which the leadership of the Communist Party was tried and convicted in 1949. The relevant sections of the statute do not criminalize the violent overthrow of the government or even advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. Instead, they criminalize the following:
Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence….
Notice just how many steps removed from actual violence these speech crimes are, how many discrete actions must be engaged in before we even get anywhere near something like a violent overthrow of the government: “attempt”….”to organize”….”a group”….”that advocates”…”the violent overthrow of the government”…at some undefined moment in the future. Talk about six degrees of separation!
Here’s how the Supreme Court interpreted that language in the Dennis case, which upheld the conviction of eleven leaders of the Communist Party.
Obviously, the words cannot mean that, before the Government may act, it must wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited. If Government is aware that a group aiming at its overthrow is attempting to indoctrinate its members and to commit them to a course whereby they will strike when the leaders feel the circumstances permit, action by the Government is required….In the instant case, the trial judge charged the jury that they could not convict unless they found that petitioners intended to overthrow the Government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” This does not mean, and could not properly mean, that they would not strike until there was certainty of success. What was meant was that the revolutionists would strike when they thought the time was ripe.
The mere fact that, from the period 1945 to 1948, petitioners’ activities did not result in an attempt to overthrow the Government by force and violence is, of course, no answer to the fact that there was a group that was ready to make the attempt. The formation by petitioners of such a highly organized conspiracy, with rigidly disciplined members subject to call when the leaders, these petitioners, felt that the time had come for action, coupled with the inflammable nature of world conditions, similar uprisings in other countries, and the touch-and-go nature of our relations with countries with whom petitioners were in the very least ideologically attuned, convince us that their convictions were justified on this score. And this analysis disposes of the contention that a conspiracy to advocate, as distinguished from the advocacy itself, cannot be constitutionally restrained, because it comprises only the preparation. It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger.
It’s that kind of repressive language and logic of containment, of nipping the threat in the bud, of suppressing speech before it becomes action, of holding that the speech itself is a crime, that we see in opponents of BDS and the academic boycott.
Like their predecessors—I’m thinking now of Sidney Hook, who argued that members of the Communist Party should not be allowed to teach in schools, also on the grounds of academic freedom—our latter-day McCarthyites throw around the word of freedom as they slowly and steadily destroy it.