Archive | Education RSS feed for this section

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

Upcoming Talks and Events

27 Mar

I’m giving a bunch of talks and papers in the coming weeks.

Tomorrow, Friday, March 28, I’ll be speaking at Syracuse University on “Being a Public Intellectual: It’s Easier—and Harder—Than You Think.” At 2pm. 304 Tolley.

On Tuesday, April 8, I’ll be speaking at the New School’s Economics Department Seminar Series on “Nietzsche, Marginalism, and the Austrian School.” At 4 pm. Room D1009, Albert and Vera List Academic Center, 6 E. 16th Street.

On Friday/Saturday, May 2/3, I’ll be speaking on Clarence Thomas and black conservatism at a conference on African-American political thought at the University of Washington in Seattle. Exact date and time to be announced, but it looks like it’ll be in the Communications Building, Room 202.

If you’re in any of these neighborhoods, stop by and say hello.

Is the Left More Opposed to Free Speech Today than It Used to Be?

25 Mar

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often—and disastrously—been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon/Dworkin critique of pornography—and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere—or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement. That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.

Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

16 Feb

For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”

I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.

What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Those are the bookends of Kristof’s piece. In between come the usual volumes of complaint: too much jargon, too much math, too much peer review, too much left politics. Plus a few dubious qualifications (economists aren’t so bad, says Kristof, because they’re Republican-friendly…and, I guess, not jargony, math-y, or peer-review-y) and horror stories that turn out to be neither horrible nor even stories.

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage  has already filleted the column, citing a bunch of counter-examples from political science, which is usually held up, along with literary theory, as Exhibit A of this problem.

But we also have all of us—sociologists, philosophers, historians, economists, literary critics, as well as political scientists—who write at Crooked Timber, which is often read and cited by the mainstream media. There’s Lawyers, Guns, and Money: judging by their comments thread, they have a large and devoted audience of non-academics.  My cohort of close friends from graduate school write articles for newspapers and magazines all the time—or important research for think tanks that gets picked up by the mainstream media—and books that are widely reviewed in the mainstream media. (And what am I? Chopped liver?) Kristof need only open the pages of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Boston Review, The American Conservative, Dissent, The American Prospect—even the newspaper for which he writes: today’s Times features three opinion columns and posts by academics—to see that our public outlets are well populated by professors.

And these are just the established academics. If you look at the graduate level, the picture is even more interesting.

When I think of my favorite writers these days—the people from whom I learn the most and whose articles and posts I await most eagerly—I think of Seth Ackerman, Peter FraseKeeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lili Loofbourow, Aaron Bady, Freddie de Boer, LD Burnett, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adam Goodman Matthijs Krul, Amy Schiller, Charles Petersen, Tom Meaney…I could go on. For a long time.

(And though Belle Waring has long since ceased to be a grad student, can someone at Book Forum or Salon or somewhere get this woman a gig? We’re talking major talent here.)

Whenever I read these folks, I have to remind myself that they’re still in grad school (or just a few months out). I sometimes think they’re way smarter than we ever were when we were in grad school. But that’s not really true. It’s simply that they’re more used to writing for public audiences—and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose—than we were.

When I was in grad school, my friends and I would dream of writing essays and articles for the common reader. I remember when one of our cohort—Diane Simon—broke into The Nation with a book review (of Nadine Gordimer?) We were totally envious. And awestruck. Getting into that world seemed impossible, unless you were Gordon Wood sauntering into the New York Review of Books after having transformed your field.

The reason it seemed so difficult is that it was. There just weren’t that many outlets for that kind of writing. None of us had any contacts. More important, aside from, maybe, a local alternative weekly, there were no baby steps to take on our way to writing for those outlets. There really was no way to get from here—working on seminar papers or dissertation proposals—to there: writing brilliant essays under mastheads that once featured names like Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

I remember all too well writing an essay in the mid 1990s that I wanted to publish in one of those magazines. When I looked around, all I could see was The New Yorker, Harper’sThe New York Review, that kind of thing. I sent it everywhere, and got nowhere.

Today, it’s different. You’ve got blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, and all those little magazines of politics and culture that we’re constantly reading about in the New York Times: Jacobin, The New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and more, which frequently feature the work of graduate students.

Now there are all kinds of problems with this new literary economy of grad student freelancers. And from talking to graduate students today (as well as junior faculty), I’m well aware that the pressure to publish in academic venues—and counter-pressure not to publish in public venues—is all too real. Worse, in fact, than when I was in grad school. Because the job market has gotten so much worse. I often wonder and worry about the job prospects of the grad students I’ve mentioned above. Are future employers going to take a pass on them simply because they’ve written as brilliantly and edgily as they have?

Back to Kristof: Even from the limited point of view of what he’s talking about—where have all the public intellectuals gone?—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So what is he really talking about, then?

You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.

Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.

(Incidentally, as an editor pointed out on Facebook, Slaughter and Lepore, along with Will McCants, who Kristof also cites approvingly, are all published by Princeton University Press. So much for academic presses churning out “soporifics.”)

Now I happen to know Jill rather well. She and I first met in the summer of 1991, when she was looking for a housemate and I was looking for a temporary place to stay. I moved in for a time—one of our other housemates was Mary Renda, who would go on to write a kick-ass book on the US invasion and occupation of Haiti, which it would behoove a trigger-happy Kristof to read—and later got in on the ground floor of her dissertation. She’s a truly gifted historian.

But there are a lot of gifted historians. And only so many slots for them at The New Yorker.

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for The New Yorker. It’s that it’s a rather selective place. Kristof says that Lepore “is an exception to everything said here.” She is, but not in the way he thinks. Or for the reasons he thinks.

If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything. And Kristof doesn’t. He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker. He doesn’t see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand.

And to the extent that he’s right about the problem of academics publishing for other academics he doesn’t identify its real causes:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

Not really. The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism. Jacoby understood the material sources of the problem he diagnosed. Kristof doesn’t.

But the material dimensions of Kristof’s oversight (or lack of sight) go even deeper. When we criticize Kristof or other academics-don’t-write-for-the-public-spouting journalists, we tend to do what I’ve just done here: We point to all the academics we know who are writing in well established venues and places and cry, “Look at them! Look at me!”

But there’s an entire economy of unsung writers with PhDs who are in a far worse position: Though they want to write, and sometimes do, for a public audience, they don’t have a standing gig the way I or The Monkey Cagers do. They’re getting by on I don’t know what. And while most of the people I mentioned above, including many of the graduate students, are getting their work into fairly mid- to high-level places, these folks aren’t. Certainly not in high enough places to pay the bills or to supplement whatever it is they’re doing to get by.

Take Yasmin Nair. Yasmin’s a writer in Chicago, with a PhD from Purdue. She’s also an activist. She’s impatient, she sees things the rest of us don’t see, she’s intemperate, she’s impossible, she’s endearing, and she’s unbelievably funny. Think Pauline Kael, only way more political. (Actually, Freddie deBoer did a pretty damn good job describing her work, so read Freddie.) She’s got two essays that I think are, as pieces of prose, brilliant: “Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts” and “Why Is America Turning to Shit?

In my ideal world, Robert Silvers would reach down from his Olympian heights and snatch up Yasmin to write about or review, well, anything. (Didn’t that kind of happen to Kael with The New Yorker?) But that’s not going to happen.

And that not happening doesn’t even begin to describe the real challenges facing a writer like Nair. Somehow she’s got to pay the bills. But unlike professors like myself or even graduate students who’ve got fellowships or TA positions (and happen to be lucky enough to live in places with a low cost of living), at least for the time being, Yasmin doesn’t have a steady-paying gig.

This isn’t just an issue of precarity or justice; it’s intimately related to the Kristofs of this world bleating “Where have all the public intellectuals gone?” Yasmin is a public intellectual (there, I said it). But without the kinds of supports the rest of us currently have or will have in the future, her pieces in The Awl or In These Times or on her blog—which is how the rest of us academics make our beginnings in the public writing world—can’t give her the lift she needs to get her work up in the air where it belongs. Because she’s always got something else, here on the ground, on her mind: namely, how to pay the rent.

And she’s not alone. Anthony Galluzzo has a PhD in English from UCLA. He’s also been adjuncting—first at West Point, now at CUNY—for years. He’s written a mess of academic articles. Two years ago he wrote an article in Jacobin that I thought was pure genius. It was called “Sarah Lawrence, With Guns,” and it was about his experience teaching English at West Point. That’s a topic that another English professor at West Point has written about, but Anthony’s treatment has the virtue of being coruscating, funny, ironic, honest, and not boosterish. Like Mary Renda’s book, the kind of writing Kristof could profit from.

When Anthony’s piece came out, I thought to myself, “This is the beginning for him.” But it hasn’t been. Because he’s been adjuncting around the clock, sometimes without getting paid on time, and worrying about other things. Like…how to pay the rent.

I had to smile at Kristof’s nod to publish or perish. Most working academics would give anything to be confronted with that dilemma. The vast majority can’t even think of publishing; they’re too busy teaching four, five, courses a semester. As adjuncts, as community college professors, at CUNY and virtually everywhere else.

I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise.

But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? Why not head over to the “Sunday Reading” at The New Inquiry, which features all the greatest writing on the internets for that week? Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read: not as a matter of justice but for the sake of the culture? Who knows? He might even learn something.

(Special thanks to Aaron Bady for reading a draft of this post and contributing some much needed additions.)

Update (4:30)

I mentioned Boston Review in my post. But as a friend reminded me, they deserve a special shout-out. Because not only do they regularly introduce and publish academics like myself—one of my earliest and IMHO most important pieces was chosen and championed by Josh Cohen, the magazine’s editor—but they often solicit work from graduate students like Lili or Aaron and non-academically employed PhDs. So if you’ve got that gem of a piece and are wondering where to send it, send it to Boston Review.

Update (5:45)

Also, I should have said this in the piece, but this line—”He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker.”—was something Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. I should have quoted it and credited to it to him in the post. My apologies.

But for the boycott there would be academic freedom

6 Feb

When people say that the ASA boycott violates academic freedom they seem to assume that academic freedom in Israel/Palestine exists. But for the boycott, goes the argument, there would be academic freedom. But as this fact sheet by the Institute for Middle East Understanding suggests, that is not the case for Palestinians.

One of our most minimal definitions of any kind of freedom, academic or otherwise, is the absence of external impediments to the physical movement of our bodies. What Palestinian students and scholars routinely face is the presence of external impediments to the physical movement of their bodies.

Here are some highlights:

Due to Israeli restrictions imposed in cooperation with the government of Egypt, it is extremely difficult for any of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians to travel abroad to study, attend academic conferences, or to leave for other purposes. Entry into Gaza by foreign academics has been similarly limited.

Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships.

In 2010, amidst great fanfare during a visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a program to provide scholarships for students from Gaza to study in the West Bank. In 2012, after Israel refused to issue travel permits to the students, the Obama administration quietly canceled the program.

While Israel does not specifically prohibit the importation of books into Gaza as part of its blockade and siege, doing so is extremely difficult, leading to a shortage of books on all subjects. At one point, Israel barred the importation of writing paper, notebooks, and pencils (leading to a shortage of the latter two) into Gaza.

It’s useful to compare these forcible restrictions on the physical movement of Palestinian bodies to the entirely voluntary ASA boycott. Is there any comparison?

Why this NYS bill is so much worse than I thought

4 Feb

John K. Wilson has an excellent analysis of the New York state legislation against the ASA.  He makes an oh-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-of-it point:

It bans not only direct funding by a college of any scholarly group passing a boycott resolution, but also any funding of travel and lodging by someone to attend that group’s events (even when none of the money would go to the organization).

While the bill does prohibit the use of public money to fund the ASA directly, not much public money, at least at CUNY, works that way. That particular provision of the bill would simply ban universities and colleges from taking out institutional memberships with the ASA; few colleges or universities do that, however. That particular provision of the bill would also prevent universities or colleges from using public funds to pay for an individual faculty member’s membership in the ASA. At least at CUNY, faculty have little if any access to those types of funds.

Where the bill would really hurt us at CUNY is the provision that would prohibit colleges and universities from using public money to fund travel to—and lodging at—an ASA conference. And here’s where Wilson’s point becomes very important. None of that public money would go to the ASA; it simply allows faculty to travel to the ASA and participate in its discussions.

This bill, in other words, is not about defunding the ASA so much as it is about stopping individual faculty from participating in the ASA. At a personal level, it’s far more intrusive and coercive than Guiliani’s attempt to defund the Brooklyn Museum or the City Council’s threat to defund CUNY over the Brooklyn College political department’s co-sponsorship of a panel discussion of BDS. Those threats were directed at institutions; this threat focuses directly on, and seeks to directly control, the associational activity of individuals.

In other news, Jesse Walker at the libertarian magazine Reason lays into the NYS bill. And don’t forget to sign onto the Crooked Timber statement.

The NYT Gets It Right — and, Even More Amazing, We Have an Open Letter For You to Sign!

4 Feb

The New York Times is out today with a strong condemnation of the NYS anti-boycott bill:

The New York bill is an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution and would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel. According to the American Association of University Professors, which opposes the association boycott and the retaliatory legislation, there is already a backlash, including in Georgia where a Jewish group compiled a “political blacklist” of professors and graduate students who supported the boycott.

Even more amazing, the Times manages to describe correctly a point of about the ASA boycott that has been particularly contentious:

The group said it would refuse formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who represent those institutions or the Israeli government until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” The boycott does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary exchanges.

Thank you, New York Times! We’ve been trying to make this point about the institutional nature of the boycott for months now. At last the mainstream media has acknowledged it.

In other news, as a few outlets have reported, we seem to have stopped the bill from advancing—for now. Yesterday, the chair of the Assembly’s Higher Education committee of the Assembly, Deborah Glick, took the bill off her committee’s agenda, which effectively prevents it from moving forward. She has said, however, that she plans to resubmit it. So it’s not over, not by any stretch. But very good work by all of you who emailed and made phone calls over the weekend.

Henry Farrell and I have written an open letter about these state bills over at Crooked Timber. The purpose of the letter is to serve as a rallying cry for academics and citizens—on both sides of the academic boycott debate—across the country. Because the New York and Maryland bills may only be the first of many, we want to give people a template, with all the relevant links, to oppose this type of legislation wherever it may arise. Again, whether they are pro- or anti-boycott.

Some critical sections of our statement:

We write as two academics who disagree on the question of the ASA boycott. One of us is a firm supporter of the boycott who believes that, as part of the larger BDS movement, it has put the Israel-Palestine conflict back on the front burner, offering much needed strategic leverage to those who want to see the conflict justly settled. The other is highly skeptical that the ASA boycott is meaningful or effective, and views it as a tactically foolish and entirely symbolic gesture of questionable strategic and moral value.

This disagreement is real, but is not the issue that faces us today. The fundamental question we confront is whether legislatures should punish academic organizations for taking politically unpopular stands. The answer is no. The rights of academics to partake of and participate in public debate are well established. Boycotts are a long recognized and legally protected mode of political speech. The purpose of these bills, as some of their drafters admit, is to prevent organizations like the ASA from engaging in this kind of speech and to punish those organizations if they do—merely because the state disapproves of the content of that speech. For these and other reasons, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union have declared their opposition to these bills.

Please go to the Crooked Timber site, sign your name in the comments section, and then share the letter on FB, Twitter, and among your friends, family, and colleagues.

Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!

3 Feb

About 75 Nearly 100 members of the Columbia University faculty have issued a forceful response to the New York State Legislature bill that would make it illegal for universities and colleges to use public money to fund faculty involvement in organizations like the ASA.

Signatories include such noted scholars as Lila Abu-Lughod, Eric Foner, Akeel Bilgrami, Jean Cohen, Victoria de Grazia, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mae Ngai, Todd Gitlin, Judith Butler, and Patricia Williams. Signatories also include prominent opponents of the ASA boycott, who nevertheless understand the threat this bill poses.

Here are some excerpts from their letter:

These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally, and specifically target the viewpoint expressed by that speech and association. Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.

These proposed laws have been cynically misdescribed as protecting academic freedom, when in fact they do just the opposite – if the Anti-Boycott bills become law they will threaten constitutionally protected academic speech and debate by punishing political speech and action by academics on matters of public concern.

A key component of academic life is membership in professional organizations, such as the ASA. Indeed it is the exceptional faculty member who is not a member of one or more professional organization. Membership in professional academic organizations, attendance at annual meetings, and participation in committee work provide important opportunities for professional development, intellectual exchange, and the evolution of knowledge in the field. Columbia University, in keeping with our peers, supports faculty research and professional development by reimbursing faculty for the costs of membership in relevant professional organizations, and covers the reasonable costs of travel to official meetings of those organizations.

Frequently the governing bodies and/or the membership of professional academic organizations take positions on matters of public concern, such as climate change, the military dictatorship in Honduras, apartheid in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to deny a visa to Professors Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to visit the U.S., the detention of scholars in Iran, President George W. Bush’s administration’s treatment of foreign prisoners – calling such treatment torture – and the Pentagon’s previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Finally, the proposed anti-boycott bills specifically target a particular form of First Amendment expression, the boycott. About this the Supreme Court has also been clear: boycotts “to bring about political, social and economic change” are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment. This form of political action has been used in countless contexts through time and across circumstance, but it has a particularly important history in the United States as a tactic to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, including the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1982 Supreme Court case N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. recounts the civil rights movement’s use of boycotts to challenge racial segregation in Mississippi and cements this political tactic as one clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not. Regardless of whether one supports the cause to which this particular boycott is responding, we all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts. A law targeting the boycott of academic institutions in countries such as Israel, Hungary, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. Simply because a cause or political viewpoint may be unpopular with elected officials does not, and cannot, justify a law censoring speech by academics in connection with that cause or viewpoint. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has clearly stated that the purpose of these bills is to cut state aid to academic institutions that fund membership in professional organizations such as the ASA. These bills thus embody exactly the kind of retaliatory action undertaken by public officials who dislike the content or viewpoint of certain speech activities that courts have consistently found unconstitutional.

Why You Should Worry More About NYS Legislation than the ASA Boycott of Israel

1 Feb

The New York State Legislature is readying to pass a bill that would make it illegal for any college or university in the state to use public monies to fund faculty membership in—or travel to—academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country.

The clear target of this legislation, as the Speaker of the State Assembly has made clear, is the American Studies Association. The bill has already passed the NYS Senate; it is going to be voted on some time this week in the Assembly.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild state in this letter, the bill raises a host of constitutional red flags. Boycotts are time-honored expressive activities, protected as speech under the First Amendment. The clear and stated purposed of this legislation is to suppress speech on the basis of its content.

Beyond these constitutional issues, this bill would have a direct effect on many of my friends and colleagues at CUNY, who are members of the ASA or travel to the ASA for its conferences, and who often use what little resources CUNY provides for this kind of thing, to travel to the ASA.

This bill needs to be stopped: either in the State Assembly or at the desk of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo.  This website here contains valuable information about whom to contact in the New York State legislature. Please take the time to do so right now. There is apparently increasing trepidation about the bill among influential members of the Assembly; your phone call or email could make a difference.

If you would like to sign this letter of protest—which does not endorse the academic boycott but instead calls upon the Legislature and the Governor to uphold the First Amendment—please email Alana Krivo-Kaufman at alana@jewishvoiceforpeace.org by Monday morning, 9 am.

In organizing signatures for this letter and talking to people about this bill, I’ve been getting some push back from folks claiming that the bill is no different from the ASA boycott itself. As false as that claim is, I welcome it, as it provides an excellent opportunity to clarify what the ASA boycott is (and isn’t)—and to point out which side of this debate is the quickest to use coercion when it serves its purposes.

The ASA boycott is voluntary: Individual members of the ASA are free to oppose it; they are free to travel to Israeli conferences and to organize joint programs with Israeli institutions—all the while that they remain ASA members in good standing. In other words, there is no penalty for not complying with the boycott. It is, as I say, voluntary.

The ASA boycott is not about individuals. Indeed, the ASA has invited Israeli scholars to its next conference. It merely seeks to sever institutional relationships: Junior Year Abroad between a university in the States and a university in Israel, joint programs and projects between universities in the two countries. That kind of thing.

The ASA boycott is not a blacklist, at least not in any sense of the term that I’m familiar with.

Now let’s compare the ASA boycott to this New York State legislation.

The legislation is (by definition) not voluntary: It mandates that colleges and universities not use state monies for the purpose of funding faculty membership in or travel to boycotting organizations like the ASA.

It is coercive: Any college or university that does use state monies in a way that the law prohibits will have the entirety of its state funding cut for that year.

It is about individuals: It directly targets individual professors, seeking to stop them from joining the ASA or traveling to the ASA, and only targets institutions secondarily, if they do not comply with the law.

If you’re against the boycott or wavering about it because you worry about the injection into academia of measures that may be non-voluntary, that may be coercive, or that may target individuals, I won’t ask you to stop worrying about that, though I think you should.

Instead, I’ll suggest that as you continue worrying and thinking about that, you take a stand against legislation that actually does inject into academia a measure that is non-voluntary, that is coercive, and that does target individuals.

If we can mobilize against this bill even 1/10 of the agita that has been mobilized against the ASA boycott, we should be able to defeat it.

Where Would the Tea Party Be Without Feminism?

24 Jan

In his campaign for reelection to the Senate, Lindsey Graham is facing several challengers from his right, all of whom are complaining that Graham is not conservative enough to represent the state of South Carolina.

One of Graham’s right-wing challengers is Nancy Mace. Like her fellow challengers, Mace claims the mantle of the Tea Party. Unlike her fellow challengers, she’s the first female graduate of The Citadel.

The Citadel was once an all-male military school. In 1995, Shannon Faulkner was the first woman to enroll there. Her effort was spearheaded by the Clinton Administration and the National Organization for Women. She quit after a week, citing extensive harassment at the hands of her male classmates, who danced and cheered as she drove off from the school.

While Faulkner had been pursuing her case at The Citadel, however, the Clinton Administration had been attempting to force the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to accept women. In June 1996, it succeeded, when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Virginia, struck down VMI’s all-male admissions policy. Three days later, The Citadel gave up its battle against women cadets. That same year, Nancy Mace enrolled there, and graduated in 1999.

The VMI decision was written by feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and was joined by Court liberals John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer, as well as Court moderates Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. The sole hard-right conservative to strike down the VMI policy was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, though he did so on narrower grounds than the majority. Antonin Scalia dissented. Clarence Thomas recused himself because his son was a student at VMI.

And now we have Nancy Mace complaining that Lindsey Graham is too liberal.

Once upon a time, conservatism derived its edge, its sense of will and adversity, from the fact that many of its most illustrious leaders had been outsiders. From Benjamin Disraeli to Phyllis Schlafly, the movement  understood its work as the volition of the upstart. “I was not,” hissed Burke at the end of his life,

like his Grace of Bedford, swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator; “Nitor in adversum” is the motto for a man like me….At every step of my progress in life, (for in every step was I traversed and opposed,) and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration, even for me.

Nowadays, we get stuff like this:

In the summer of 1996, The Citadel opened its doors to women and Nancy took a bold step—she simply hopped in her car and drove to The Citadel to pick up an application. The next day, she submitted it.

A few days later, Nancy was accepted as one of the first women ever to enter the Citadel’s ranks as a “knob.” Nancy took the plunge and joined the Corps of Cadets, eager to follow in her father’s footsteps.

That doesn’t bode well for the movement.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,597 other followers