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A Letter from Bonnie Honig to Phyllis Wise

24 Aug

In the midst of a conflict like the Salaita affair, it’s easy for individual voices to get lost. The persons involved, and their fates, get forgotten. Particulars are submerged into principles, the din in the head crowds out the distinctive sights and sounds of the case. That’s why, when I read this letter from political theorist Bonnie Honig to Chancellor Wise and the UIUC community, I knew I was hearing and seeing something different. No one that I know of has written a letter like this, which insists on remembering the specificity of not only Steven Salaita but also Phyllis Wise. Professor Honig has kindly allowed me to reprint it here.

• • • • • 

August 24, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise, (and Members of the Board of Trustees, and the UIUC community of faculty, staff, and students),

I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple of weeks ago and hoped you would reconsider. As I told you then, I am Jewish and was raised as a Zionist, and I was moved by the case. I write now in the hope that you might find some measure of empathy for this man. Please bear with me for 2 pages….

I do not know Prof. Salaita, but I must say that as I read about the case I was struck by what I can only describe as a certain smug and uncivil tone in his critics, who seemed very assured about what sort of speech is within the bounds of propriety, and what is not. To be clear: I do not grant that speech that lacks propriety justifies the treatment Prof Salaita has received. I leave that point aside since others — John Stuart Mill, Brian Leiter, others – have ably addressed it.

I want to draw your attention to the issue of “empathy.”

This is what I thought at the time this story first broke: Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.

What kind of a person would Prof Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did!? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?

Meantime, even under duress, he is careful about a key thing: His published tweets distinguish Zionism from Jews and others. In the one tweet about anti-Semitism, he puts that term in scare quotes. I don’t know if I would be as nuanced were I in the same situation. Certainly many of my Zionist or Netanyahu-supporting friends and relatives are not: they do not take the trouble to make the analogous distinctions in their commentaries on the situation.

Anyone involved in this case who is incapable of empathy for Salaita at the moment could themselves perhaps learn something about empathy from the very person who has been charged with lacking it. May I ask you: Surely you are not incapable of empathy for his plight, both now (stranded between institutions) and in July (watching from afar as people to whom he presumably feels connected die or are wounded)?

May I add, further, that, as befits the picture I have here painted, there is no actual evidence in the teaching record that Prof Salaita lacks the empathy and tolerance expected of teachers in the classroom. The repeatedly stated ‘concern’ that he is lacking in this way is not only unpersuasive. It is also painful because it may well stick: based on nothing but ignorant or self-serving fears, it may well have a lasting impact on a blameless person’s career and fortunes.

Can you not find a way to resolve the situation to the advantage of both UIUC AND Prof. Salaita? Decisions like this one are the sort that haunt the people who make them for years to come, so I hope you will indeed be able to open your heart in your consideration of the matter. It is not too late. At the very least I urge you and UIUC to stop charging Prof. Salaita with being wanting in vague and either irrelevant or personal ways. That just adds insult and injury to injury. Another irony there: your stated position is that words matter, so much so that other commitments must fall before them. So the responsibility to choose them carefully seems to me to land especially heavily on you and your institution. I do not see you rising to that challenge. This too, I want to suggest, should be hard to live with.

In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with the thousands of academics worldwide who, regrettably, cannot accept invitations henceforth to speak at UIUC or to do any other sort of support work (tenure or promotion letters etc) for your institution. I say regrettably because I have been happy to visit in the past, as a keynote speaker and lecturer. I hope you can understand my position. Simply put, to act in any other way would be wrong.

Thank you for your consideration.

Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Brown University, Providence, RI

All the News That Was Fit to Print Ten Years Ago

21 May

New York Times:

For instance, while much has been written about the F.B.I.’s first and most influential director, J. Edgar Hoover, and his hunt for communists and his suspicion of the civil rights movement, little attention has been paid to his effort to unmask gays in government and academia.


According to John Cheever, 1948 was ‘the year everybody in the United States was worried about homosexuality’. And nobody was more worried than the federal government, which was rumoured to be teeming with gays and lesbians. One might think that Washington’s attentions would have been focused elsewhere – on the Soviet Union, for example, or on Communist spies – but in 1950, President Truman’s advisers warned him that ‘the country is more concerned about the charges of homosexuals in the government than about Communists.’ The executive branch responded immediately. That year, the State Department fired ‘perverts’ at the rate of one a day, more than twice the figure for suspected Communists. Charges of homosexuality ultimately accounted for a quarter to a half of all dismissals in the State and Commerce Departments, and in the CIA. Only 25 per cent of Joseph McCarthy’s fan letters complained of ‘red infiltration’; the rest fretted about ‘sex depravity’.

The scare lasted from 1947 to the 1970s, and in The Lavender Scare David Johnson estimates that thousands lost their jobs. The men and women charged with rinsing the pink from the Potomac were astonishingly ignorant about their quarry. Senator Clyde Hoey, head of the first congressional inquiry into the threat, had to ask an aide: ‘Can you please tell me, what can two women possibly do?’ Senator Margaret Chase Smith asked one Hoey Committee witness whether there wasn’t a ‘quick test like an X-ray that discloses these things’.

The official justification for the purge was that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could be turned into Soviet spies. But as Johnson points out, investigators never found a single instance of this kind of blackmail during the Cold War. The best they could come up with was a dubious case from before the First World War, when the Russians allegedly used the homosexuality of Austria’s top spy to force him to work for them.

The real justification was even more suspect: gays were social misfits whose pathology made them susceptible to Communist indoctrination. Many conservatives also believed that the Communist Party was a movement of and for libertines, and the Soviet Union a haven of free love and open marriage. Gays, they concluded, couldn’t resist this freedom from bourgeois constraint. Drawing parallels with the decline of the Roman Empire, McCarthy regarded homosexuality as a cultural degeneracy that could only weaken the United States. It was, as one tabloid put it, ‘Stalin’s Atom Bomb’.

How could a nation confronting so many foreign threats allow itself to be sidetracked like this? (This is not just a question for historians: in recent months, Congress has devoted considerable energy to debating gay marriage, while in the last 13 years the US military has fired 55 of its Arabic speakers for being gay; the most recent was uncovered after investigators asked him if he had ever participated in community theatre.) With the Soviets in possession of the bomb and Korea on the march, why was Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, dispatched to Congress to defend his heterosexuality and that of his ‘powder puff diplomats’? Didn’t he have more important things to do than host rowdy gatherings of politicians and journalists that were

reminiscent of ‘stag parties’, featuring copious amounts of Scotch and bourbon, and smiling women ‘whose identity remained undisclosed’. As one senator remarked, ‘It reminded me somewhat of the fraternity rushing season at college.’ Dean Acheson tried to appear as ‘one of the boys’, slapping senators on the back. A journalist reported that ‘his hair was rumpled, his tie awry. The stiff and precise manner and speech which have antagonised many of us had disappeared. He even seemed to have removed the wax from his moustache.’

Johnson’s book is one of the most instructive histories of the domestic Cold War to have appeared in years…

 The rest of the Times piece is actually quite interesting, so make sure to check it out. Just wanting to correct the record a bit.

There’s no business like Shoah business

4 Mar

I’ve been reading Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m hoping to blog about it when I’m done, but for now, I wanted to tell this little story from the book.

In 1966, Anne Marisse, who was playing Tzeitel in Fiddler, was fired after she missed a performance on Rosh Hashanah without, the producers said, giving advance notice. Marisse’s firing proved controversial in the Jewish community. For two reasons: first, because Fiddler was a show about preserving Jewish traditions in the face of the secular (and other) demands of modernity; and second, because Sandy Koufax had refused the previous year to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. One particularly irate man in the Bronx wrote to the producers: “Your ‘show must go on’ regardless…Six million of our people also had a ‘show’ of their own when they marched into gas chambers.”

Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

8 Feb

As some of you may know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”

But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.

If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert.

• • • • •

Dear Douglas Martin:

Many thanks for your wonderful obituary of Bob Dahl, who I knew distantly when I was a grad student in political science at Yale. I believe, however, that there may be an error in the obituary. You write:

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

That definition of politics is commonly understood to be David Easton’s, not Dahl’s. In his 1953 book The Political System Easton said that political science ought to be the study of “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Dahl reviewed Easton’s book in 1955 in the journal World Politics. In that review, Dahl characterized Easton’s view as follows: “Political science is (or, at any rate, ought to be) focused on the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” It is important to note that this is not Dahl’s view; he is merely characterizing Easton’s view. And indeed, he goes onto criticize that view (and the general desire to find a definition of politics or political science) as “curiously metaphysical” in the succeeding paragraphs of his review.

As for the specific phrase that you cite in your obituary—”the process that determines the authoritative allocation of values”—I believe that’s a quote from Karl Deutsch’s textbook Politics and Government, which came out in 1970. You can find the passage here, where he is summarizing a common view of politics. But again I don’t think it’s Dahl’s view.
Corey Robin
Update (February 12)
From today’s New York Times (h/t my mom):
An obituary on Saturday about the political scientist Robert A. Dahl…mistakenly credited a concept to Professor Dahl. The political scientist David Easton — not Professor Dahl — wrote that politics involves “the authoritative allocation of values.”

Freud on Global Warming

18 Dec

Whenever I think about global warming, and our suicidal rush to destroy the planet, I think of these bleak lines of Freud, which he composed after witnessing a similar headlong rush toward destruction in the form of the First World War:

It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that “the goal of all life is death”…

My Life

16 Nov

The Ghost Writer:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

Pretty much.

Jackson Lears on Edward Snowden

19 Jul

I don’t agree with everything in this editor’s note on Edward Snowden by historian and Raritan editor Jackson Lears—I actually think the traditional left/right distinction is still of value and relevance, even on this issue; I’m not so partial to the framers of the Constitution; and I’m not big on calls for restoration, even (especially) a constitutional restoration of the framers’ vision (Seth Ackerman’s views here are closer to my own)—but on the fundamental question of the surveillance state I could not be in more agreement. Besides, reading anything by Jackson is always a treat. So check it out. And then subscribe to Raritan. It’s one of the best journals around.


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