Why Arendt might not have read Benito Cereno (if she did indeed not read Benito Cereno)

12 Sep

For a change of pace…

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.

Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)

I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.

Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.

Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.

If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.

In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught usBenito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)

Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.

It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?

 

 

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

A Palestinian Exception to the First Amendment

9 Sep

Steven Salaita spoke today at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to the YMCA, where the event was held, some 400 students, faculty, staff, and supporters turned up.

Salaita opened with a statement. Here are some excerpts:

My name is Steven Salaita. I am a professor with an accomplished scholarly record; I have been a fair and devoted teacher to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students; I have been a valued and open-minded colleague to numerous faculty across disciplines and universities. My ideas and my identity are far more substantive and complex than the recent characterizations based on a selected handful of my Twitter posts.

Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.

Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom.

I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom.

For me, the best part of his press conference was the Q and A with the media, which begins at 40:50 in the video below. I would encourage everyone to watch it because it gives you the best sense of Salaita the man, the thinker, and the teacher. As I’ve said, I don’t know Salaita personally, except through our interactions on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve never met him or heard him speak. I haven’t read his academic writings. But listening to and watching him field questions, it became clear to me why the American Indian Studies department was so eager to hire him.

My favorite exchange occurs at 43:30. Someone in the media asks him why he would want to still come and teach at UIUC. Looking around the room, which is filled with students, Salaita says:

The question is—and if I’m summarizing it incorrectly let me know—some people are wondering why I would want to work here after all of this has happened and whether it might be uncomfortable. The answer is…the answer is in this room.

Perfect.

 

 

One other point to note. At 55:00, one of Salaita’s attorneys is asked about what the litigation process would look like. The attorney replies:

There’s no question that if there is litigation there will be an intensive document retrieval process that will involve trying to get at the heart of exactly what the motivation was for this decision. We think, based on what is already known, the university is going to have some very hard arguments. But we will learn a lot. We will also be able to take depositions. And that is an opportunity to sit people down and ask them about their role in this process, their decision-making and other things. Again, Professor Salaita’s goal is not to have to go down that road. But he is prepared to do so if necessary.

I’ve long felt that one of the things that has to make the university nervous is the prospect of litigation. Yes, the university has tons of money and lawyers. But it also has interests. And one of those interests is protecting the privacy of its donors. I can’t for the life of me believe that the university really wants to risk the rage and rancor of donors having their names dragged into the harsh glare of the public spotlight. Once this case gets into court—and most experts, regardless of which side they fall, believe that Salaita has a good chance of getting into court—there will be discovery motions that will turn up all sorts of paper. What we’ve seen already is damning and embarrassing. But think about what could be coming down the pike: not only emails to and fro, but also records of phone calls, transcripts of meetings, and more. Even if the university were to win the case, they’d have to lose a lot in order to do so.

In other news, Chancellor Wise was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune.

On Monday, Wise acknowledged in an interview that she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision. She said the situation has been “challenging.”

She also said there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.

“I wish I had not consulted with just a few people and then written the letter to Professor Salaita,” Wise said. “I don’t know what the consultation would have led me to do.”

This is now the third time that Wise has said that she regrets not consulting with other voices on the campus. But this is the first time that she’s positively stated that not only did her firing of Salaita not reflect her own position, but also that she might have reached a different decision than the one she reached had she consulted other voices. Which is precisely the argument that so many of us have been making about whose voices Wise did and did not heed in this process. It almost seems as if she’s trying to give Salaita evidence for his case.

Last, Katherine Franke, who’s been leading the legal academic community on this issue, and Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD candidate in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, appeared today on Democracy Now.

I urge you to listen to the interview, in particular the part that begins at 47:00. There Kris, whom I know personally, speaks about his experience as an adjunct at Brooklyn College, where he was hired by my department to teach a course on Middle East politics for the spring of 2011 and then fired before the course began. Sound familiar? The reason he was fired? Pro-Israel forces objected to something he had written. Sound familiar? Here’s what one of the leaders of those forces, NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said at the time about an academic paper Kris had written on suicide bombers:

Hikind, a staunch ally of Israel, sent a letter on Monday to Karen Gould, the college’s president, with a copy to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, in which he questioned the adjunct’s appointment. Calling Petersen-Overton “an overt supporter of terrorism,” Hikind said he was “better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza.”

Hikind, who said he earned his master’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Ed that he reached these conclusions after spending “countless hours” reading the newly hired adjunct’s work. This included, chiefly, his unpublished paper, “Inventing the Martyr: Struggle, Sacrifice and the Signification of Palestinian National Identity,” in which he examines martyrdom as it “embodies ideals of struggle and sacrifice” in the context of national identity. Hikind said such works reflect an effort to “understand” suicide bombers. “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”

Kris didn’t say anything about anti-Semitism becoming honorable, he didn’t say anything about settlers going missing, he didn’t say anything about necklaces of teeth. His crime was trying “to understand about someone who murders women and children.” As Dostoevsky did in Crime and Punishment. That was enough to get him fired.

This is why I come to this whole Salaita affair with a bit of skepticism about the tweets. It’s skepticism born of my own personal experience with four controversial fights over Israel/Palestine. If it’s not the tweets, it’s the grad student paper trying to understand suicide bombers. If it’s not the grad student paper trying to understand suicide bombers, it’s the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright who cannot receive an honorary degree because he’s voiced criticism of Israel. If it’s not the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright who cannot receive an honorary degree because he’s voiced criticism of Israel, it’s the New York City Council threatening CUNY’s funding because the political science department at Brooklyn College is co-sponsoring—not endorsing, not organizing, not funding, but co-sponsoring—a panel on BDS. If it’s not the New York City Council threatening CUNY’s funding because the political science department at Brooklyn College is co-sponsoring a panel on BDS, it’s the NYS Legislature threatening a college’s funding if it financially supports individual faculty membership in the American Studies Association, which supports the academic boycott of Israel.

Every time it’s the same goddam story: supporters of Israel, increasingly anxious over the way the conversation about Israel is going in this country, flexing their muscles to muzzle a voice, to stop a debate. (Just today Buzzfeed is reporting that AIPAC is looking for ways to pass federal legislation to stop BDS in its tracks.) A Palestinian exception to the First Amendment?

Thankfully, in Kris’s case, we were able to rally a national campaign of prominent academics, particularly in political science, to support his reinstatement. We made his case a national story. Sound familiar?

And here’s the best part, dear reader: We won.

Since I came onto the interwebs, I’ve been involved in five fights over the place of Israel/Palestine in academe: the Petersen-Overton fight, which we won; the Tony Kushner fight, which we won; the BDS at Brooklyn College fight, which we won, the NYS Assembly fight, which we won, and now the Salaita affair.

There is a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment. And we’re fighting to end it. Because that’s the way the First Amendment has always advanced in this country: not simply through reasoned argument, but through struggle. Vorwärts!

 

Over 5000 Scholars Boycotting the UIUC

9 Sep

Tomorrow is Steven Salaita’s day. Just so that he—and the rest of the world—will know how many of us in academe are standing with him, there are now 5098 scholars boycotting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until the University reinstates Salaita.

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. General, non-discipline-specific, boycott statement: 1819*
  2. Philosophy: 567
  3. Political Science: 306
  4. Sociology: 292
  5. History: 93*
  6. Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies: 78
  7. Communications: 105
  8. Rhetoric/Composition: 63
  9. English: 360
  10. Contingent academic workers: 295
  11. Anthropology: 177
  12. Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies: 54*
  13. Library and Information Science: 180
  14. Natural sciences: 34
  15. Graduate students: 675

*These are numbers I have had to pull from older reports; they could be higher.

 

Salaita to Speak at Press Conference Tomorrow at UIUC

8 Sep

Steven Salaita will be speaking tomorrow, Tuesday, September 9, at 12:30 pm, at a press conference at the University YMCA in Urbana, Illinois. Two days before the Board of Trustees meets.

Salaita will be joined by Robert Warrior, chair of the American Indian Studies department at UIUC; Michael Rothberg, chair of the English department at UIUC, Maria LaHood, a senior attorney from the Center for Constitutional Rights, and two UIUC students.

This is the first time Salaita will be speaking publicly about his situation.

His legal team includes the Center for Constitutional Rights and Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “For those unable to attend the press conference in person, a copy of Prof. Salaita’s comments will be sent around afterwards and the speakers will be available for interview by phone beginning at 2 p.m. CDT.”

The University YMCA is located at 1001 S Wright Street in Urbana. The number is 217-337-1500.

If you’re in the area, please come and show your support.

Civility, One Chair to Another

8 Sep

Jean O’Brien, professor of history and chair of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota, sent an email to Chris Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and son of Bobby Kennedy, about the Salaita affair.

I reproduce the exchange here, unedited.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Chris Kennedy <chris@northbankandwells.com>
Date: Sun, Sep 7, 2014 at 3:27 PM
Subject: Re: Steven Salaita
To: Jean O’Brien <obrie002@umn.edu>

You were not brief enough

Christopher G. Kennedy
E – chris@nbandw.com / chris@northbankandwells.com
O – (312) 527-7503
C – [REDACTED]

————

On Sep 7, 2014, at 2:37 PM, “Jean O’Brien” <obrie002@umn.edu> wrote:

Dear Trustee Kennedy:

I will be brief: please reverse your cowardly decision to “un-hire” Steven Salaita in the name of justice, humanity, civility, and in defense of academic freedom. Your actions have already damaged your great University so deeply that it is difficult to imagine reversing that damage, but this would be one small step. The world is watching. If you take seriously your capacity as a trustee, then please act in compliance with the expectation such a position demands of you.

On a personal note, several years ago, I was offered the position of Director of Native American Studies at Illinois that Robert Warrior now performs so ably. The actions of the University demonstrate in no uncertain terms that I never made a better decision than to turn that offer down. I only hope that the stellar program he has painstakingly built will not be completely undone.

Jean O’Brien
Professor, Department of History
Chair, Department of American Indian Studies
University of Minnesota

Co-Founder, Native American and Indigenous Studies Association

Co-Editor (with Robert Warrior) of Native American and Indigenous Studies

Civility, one chair to another.

This is not the response of a highly professional administration in control of itself. This is the bitter voice mail of a peevish lover drunk-dialing in the middle of the night.

As I’ve been saying, the leadership of the University of Illinois is unraveling.

Update (9:50 am)

Henry Farrell emails Chris Kennedy this morning:

I understand you like brief emails so just one sentence – you have a chance to mitigate the terrible damage that is being done to your university’s academic reputation, and I respectfully suggest you take it.

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