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