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Chronicle of Higher Ed Profiles Me and My Blog

19 Sep

Marc Parry has written a long profile of me, this blog, and my work and activism in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some excerpts:

The Salaita Affair has riveted academe. One story line that has drawn less attention is the role played by Mr. Robin. For more than a month, the professor has turned his award-winning blog into a Salaita war room, grinding out a daily supply of analysis, muckraking, and megaphone-ready incitement.

“A lot of people see him as an intellectual leader,” says Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of the magazine Dissent. “He can be counted on to battle people.” (Those people include Mr. Kazin, who crossed swords with Mr. Robin last year when Mr. Kazin published an article critical of academic anti-Israel boycotts.)

Mr. Robin is something of an odd fit for his current role.

Although people constantly ask him to speak about the Israel-Palestine question, he turns down the invitations because he does not consider himself an expert on the subject. His current scholarship focuses on the political theory of capitalism. His last book, The Reactionary Mind (Oxford University Press), was a much-debated collection of essays about conservatism.

And although he has been lauded as the “quintessential public intellectual for the digital age,” Mr. Robin is really something of a technology dinosaur.

The professor does not own a smartphone. He flees the Internet by riding New York’s subway trains for four hours at a time after dropping off his 6-year-old daughter at school or camp. He devotes these trips to reading: ­”Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn,” as he wrote in one post.

Like an addict, Mr. Robin tries to set boundaries for his habit. For instance: No blogging first thing in the morning. That way the process won’t eat up his whole day.

“I’m always telling myself, ‘OK, this is the last day I’m blogging,’” Mr. Robin says.

When I arrived at his apartment for an interview around noon one day this week, he had already violated his no-blogging-in-the-morning rule. Twice.

Mr. Robin can be a pugnacious online presence. During the BDS donnybrook, for example, he ripped a former student, Jumaane D. Williams, who had gone on to become one of the City Council members critical of the event. “U took my class on civil liberties,” Mr. Robin wrote in a series of tweets directed at Mr. Williams. “Pressure from govt officials on campus speech is ok? That’s what U learned?”

In person, though, he comes off as polite and cool-headed (mostly). The professor is a compact man with rosy cheeks and light brown hair that falls over his forehead; on the day of our interview, he wore a wrinkled white shirt and dark slacks, which gave him the look of an off-duty waiter.

Recent years have radicalized his views on the role of the academy in Israel debates. Previously, he didn’t have a position on BDS and even sympathized with critics who questioned the relevance of such boycotts. He now supports the movement. “I think the academy actually is quite important on the Israel debate,” he says.

In the Salaita case, Todd Gitlin faults Mr. Robin for failing to engage with the substance of Mr. Salaita’s tweets, at least as far as Mr. Gitlin has seen. Mr. Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, points to this Salaita tweet from July: “There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.” As Mr. Gitlin views it, “Salaita crossed the line from incivility to rank hatred.”

Mr. Robin has actually blogged about one of the most potentially offensive tweets. More broadly, though, he acknowledges “deliberately not engaging in the content.”

As he explains why, he seems on the verge of exploding.

“Todd Gitlin and I could go back and forth for days,” he says. “Parsing tweets! Like, tweets! Tweets!”

“The serious thing to do is to figure out what’s actually happening,” he says. “An outspoken critic of Israel, speaking in an inflammatory way about it, being punished and drummed out of the academy—that’s what’s happening.”

Getting into the details of the tweets, he says, is “missing the forest for the trees.”

Wished I had remembered, when I was talking about why universities and academics like Steven Salaita get targeted in the Israel/Palestine debate, that I had remembered this, from Hobbes’s Behemoth:

The core of rebellion…are the Universities; which nevertheless are not to be cast away, but better disciplined.

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

administrator@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

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.

The Personnel is Political

11 Sep

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees today voted 8-1 not to reinstate Steven Salaita.

Trustee James Montgomery, who last Friday publicly broached his misgivings about the university’s decision to hirefire Salaita, was the sole vote on behalf of Salaita. Though Montgomery had originally signed a statement supporting Chancellor Wise, he said, “I’m just someone who has the humility to be able to say that I think I made a mistake and I don’t mind saying it.” Here is his eloquent testimony.

 

Needless to say, the vote today sucks, and there is no use sugar-coating it. While it’s testament to the movement we’ve mounted that the Board was forced to publicly confront this issue, and that we managed to persuade one trustee to change his mind (from reports I’ve heard, other trustees did as well, but they are student trustees who have no voting power), our power and our principles proved in the end not to be enough to match the donors’ purse strings.

So it looks like a legal remedy will now be pursued. I’m using the passive voice because I have no idea what Salaita and his lawyers are planning, though the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Salaita, did put out a statement after the Board vote. And the ever charming Chair of the Board of Trustees had this to say:

“I assume the attorneys will reach out and work something out or understand their position more clearly. We are not looking to be held up. We want to be fair but we don’t want to be pushovers,” board Chairman Christopher Kennedy said after the meeting. “Either they will sue or we will settle. It is hard to predict what another party will do. … Am I going to give you my playbook on a negotiating matter?”

The legal route is one path, an important path, but it’s not the only path, and more important, it’s not our path. That is, the path of all of us who have spoken out on this case.

Our path is not legal; it is political. It’s not about lawyers, it’s not about courtrooms. It’s about principles and movements, words on the web, bodies on the ground, and voices in the street. It is about power. How we deploy that power, I don’t know. That we will deploy that power, I am sure. Now is the time to think creatively and collectively.

In the meantime, I wanted to take note of a comment Chancellor Wise made in an interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

It’s a telling statement, revealing an archipelago of assumption that I’ve been tackling in all my work since my first book. In Wise’s world, freedom of speech stands on one side, employment on the other, and never the twain shall meet. It’s almost as if, to her mind, we’re making a category error when we speak of both in the same breath.

And it’s not just Wise who thinks this way. About two weeks ago on Twitter, I heard a similar remark from a young progressive journalist (I won’t link to the comment because I don’t want to draw negative attention or criticism to this person, who went on to express a willingness to rethink her position). Rights and repression are one thing, employment sanctions another. The philosopher Gerald Dworkin voiced an attenuated version of that argument, too.

Yet as I’ve argued on this and other blogs countless times, employment sanctions are in fact one of the most common methods of political repression in this country. Remember that anecdote Tocqueville reported in his journals, about how he asked a doctor in Baltimore why in a country that had so much formal religious freedom there was such a compulsion toward orthodoxy. Without hesitating, the doctor said it was all about the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

The state needn’t punish men and women for their heresies; the private sector will do it for them. That’s why during the McCarthy years so few people went to jail. Two hundred tops. Because it was in the workplace that Torquemada found his territory: some twenty to forty percent of employees, monitored, investigated, or otherwise subject to surveillance for their beliefs. The ruling elites in this country have always understood what Hamilton wrote in Federalist 79:

In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.

Which brings us back to Steven Salaita. As I argued on Labor Day, it’s easy to see his case as simply one of academic freedom or the rights of tenured professors. It is that, but it’s more. It’s about the use of employment sanctions for political ends, the peculiarities and particularities of Fear, American Style, which do not apply only to Steven Salaita. They apply to all at-will employees, to that terra incognita of private governance that is the American workplace. Salaita is but the latest in a long line of victims.

While the pro-Israel forces show no compunction about using the weapons of state to enforce their orthodoxies, the sphere of employment, particularly in the academy, where one most often hears views critical of Israel, will become increasingly the scene of the censor. It already has: as I said the other day, my first battle over Israel/Palestine was to defend an adjunct in my department who had been fired for his (mistakenly construed) views on Israel/Palestine.

The issue is not simply Israel/Palestine; it’s the growing assault on fundamental rights and the increasing push toward precarity that has become the experience of workers everywhere.

If we’re going to fight this in the academy, we’re going to have to fight it the way every worker has ever had to fight: not only in courts of law, but also in the streets; not just with the help of lawyers, but also with help of each other; not simply with our smarts, but also with our feet. With unions, strikes, boycotts—the entire repertoire of collective action and militancy that gave this country whatever minimal (and ever fading) semblance of decency it has managed to achieve.

One last chance to send a BRIEF email to the Board of Trustees

10 Sep

Tomorrow is D-Day: The Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois meets. If you haven’t emailed them yet, please do so now; remember, we have an opening. I was going to say be civil, be polite, and all that. But apparently the main thing is: be brief. Email addresses below.

In the meantime, there’s a rally tomorrow at UIUC, 12 noon. For faculty, staff, students, trade unionists, and concerned citizens. Go.

PosterSep11

Here are the addresses:

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: chris@northbankandwells.com

Robert A. Easter, President: reaster@uillinois.edu

Hannah Cave, Trustee: [the one we had doesn't work, though a commenter claims this one is correct: hcave2@uis.edu.]

Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: estradar@metrofamily.org

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: patrick.fitzgerald@skadden.com

Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: lnfrye2@illinois.edu

Karen Hasara, Trustee: hasgot28@aol.com

Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: pholmes@schiffhardin.com

Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee:  tkoritz@gmail.com

Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: dleibo2@uic.edu

Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: mcmillaned@sbcglobal.net or mcmillaned@msn.com

James D. Montgomery, Trustee: james@jdmlaw.com

Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: pbstrobel@comcast.net

Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: bearrows@uillinois.edu

Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: kies@uillinois.edu

Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: lmckeever@wpmck.com

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