From Alan Dershowitz’s just published autobiography:
I loved Brooklyn College, and Brooklyn College loved—and still loves—me.
He then adds a footnote, which reads:
I guess this little exchange was the last straw:
Glenn Greenwald will be delivering the Brooklyn College political science department’s 39th annual Samuel J. Konefsky Memorial Lecture this year. The topic of the lecture: “Civil Liberties and Endless War in the Age of Obama.” The lecture will be held on Monday, March 4, at 1 pm. In the Gold Room (6th Floor) of SUBO, which is the student center building, located at Campus Road and 27th Street. The lecture is open to the public.
Like Alan Dershowitz, a previous Konefsky Lecturer, Greenwald will be speaking alone. Like the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Greenwald will balance himself.
Just some odds and ends from the Brooklyn College BDS controversy.
1. I did a Bloggingheads show with Sarah Posner. This is just a clip where I talk about my own confrontation with the Israel-Palestine question in college and how that helps me think about education more generally. But you can also watch the whole thing if you like.
2. I never posted the follow-up letter [pdf] that Gale Brewer, one of the members of the City Council who signed that Fidler letter and then jumped ship, sent to President Gould.
3. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild teamed up to write a letter [pdf] to all the members of City Council who signed the Fidler letter. It helpfully gets into the case law around this issue.
4. The NYCLU sent its own letter to Lewis Fidler [pdf]. In addition to claiming that Fidler’s letter “turns the First Amendment on its head,” it discusses some of the thornier issues surrounding the question of whether universities or academic departments can take political stands on the issues of the day:
There is a longstanding debate in academic circles regarding the question as to whether and when an academic institution should refrain from taking ideological positions and abstain from, using its corporate form, to speak out on the issues of the day. A committee at the University of Chicago, headed by Harry Kalven, Jr., issued a widely circulated report in 1967 urging that the University not engage in “political and social action.” The committee reasoned that the proper role of a university is to provide a neutral forum for the free exchange of ideas and that when it abandons its neutrality “it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” The merits of the Kalven report have been much debated at the University of Chicago and elsewhere over the years. The question re-surfaced when the Sullivan Principles were proposed in opposition South African apartheid and universities were urged to endorse those principles and many of them did. It was addressed and criticized at the University of Chicago only last year. The Chicago Maroon, March 2, 2012. Indeed, even if the Kalven position were to be adopted, it is unclear whether, as a matter of policy, such a position should be limited to the role of a college or the university or whether it should be extended to smaller units within the academic institution. Restated, if a university elects to refrain from “political and social action” should its academic departments adopt a similar position of restraint? Some might say yes. But, if individual scholars can take positions on the issues of the day, as surely they are entitled to do, why can these scholars not associate with other academics and speak out collectively or in the name of an academic department, recognizing that there may well be members of the department who dissent from the departmental viewpoint?
These are interesting questions that are best left to be resolved by the individual academic institutions and entities. For academic freedom is best protected by allowing academic institutions to engage in self-governance and by preventing the political branches of government from intruding into academic decision-making. One of the earliest lessons of academic freedom is that legislative bodies must refrain from using the power of the purse to dictate the content of the academic enterprise. Arthur Lovejoy, one of the principal architects of the concept of academic freedom in this country, observed that “the distinctive social function of the scholar’s trade cannot be fulfilled if those who pay the piper were permitted to call the tune.”
4. Stanley Fish has a post about the controversy at the Times.
5. Last night, Columbia Law School sponsored a talk by Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations. Since I didn’t hear a peep about this from Alan Dershowitz, the City Council, or any of the other critics of the Brooklyn College poli sci department, I can only assume the ambassador balanced himself.
My department at Brooklyn College—political science—is Ground Zero of a controversy over Israel/Palestine, academic freedom, and free speech. Early in January, we were asked by a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine, to co-sponsor a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). The panel features Omar Barghouti and world-renowned philosopher Judith Butler. We agreed to co-sponsor.
Since then, things have exploded. The usual suspects—people like Alan Dershowitz and Dov Hikind—have weighed in; we’re being called anti-Semites, comparisons to the Holocaust are being made, and I got this lovely bit of hate mail: “Just writing to wish you and your family the worst…You are being a piece of f*cking trash, and you’re on the side of the antisemites and Islamic jihadists now.”
What’s different in this case is that progressive elected officials, including all three top mayoral candidates and four members of Congress, are also weighing in, trying to get the president of Brooklyn College to force my department to withdraw our co-sponsorship of this discussion. We’re talking people who control the purse strings of CUNY and people with real state power. This is straightforward political coercion.
Rather than give my account of the story, I’m going to give you some good links to catch yourself up. I also want to post here some letters from various supporters.
Glenn Greenwald probably has the most exhaustive treatment, including exposes of Dershowitz’s hypocrisy that will take your breath away. Make sure to read his update; it’s, well, I don’t even know how to describe it.
Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones goes after the members of Congress, who claim that any speaker on a college campus should be balanced with another speaker of opposite views. (Will be curious whether next time the senior senator of NY speaks at Brooklyn College commencement, as Charles Schumer does virtually every year, they ask the College president to put someone on stage to offer the opposing view.)
Amy Schiller at Daily Beast gathers these unbelievable nuggets from Dov Hikind:
Hikind called for the department vote on sponsoring the panel to be public: “Is someone hiding behind someone’s skirt? Release the vote to the public! Those who want to sponsor the event, put your names down!” He noted just prior to the press conference that the college president Gould has cancelled her upcoming trip to Albany to request increased funds for the university. Hikind added that he was disappointed that she would not be able to advocate for additional funding: “You don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I said I would make her life a little miserable?”
Finally, I myself had an interesting exchange with New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who issued a public letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, in which he asked for her “intervention with [Political Science] Chair Paisley Currah in an effort to allow both sides of this hot-button matter to be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum. If that cannot be accomplished, I urge the removal of the department’s sponsorship of this event.” Here’s the kicker: Williams is a former student of mine. The class he took with me? Civil liberties.
Our department, whose policy on co-sponsoring talks and panels you can find here, has had an outpouring of public support. Here are just a few of the many letters that have been sent to President Gould on our behalf.
Dear President Gould,
My name is Keith Gessen; I’m an editor at the Brooklyn-based literary and political magazine n+1, as well as a writer and translator here in Brooklyn.
As a fan of Brooklyn College, I’m writing to express my support for the Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti event, and to say how disturbing I find all the political pressure that’s being brought to bear on the College. I was particularly concerned by the letter from “progressive politicians” proposing to instruct you on the meaning of academic freedom. That Brooklyn’s politicians do not know who Judith Butler is does not mean that people in the community do not know that she is one of the most admired, subtle, and interesting philosophers in our country, and that having her speak in Brooklyn on such a vexed and painful issue as divestment in Israel is a significant intellectual and political event.
In short, I hope you’ll continue to hold fast, and will let us in the community know if there’s anything we can do to be helpful in our support. I look forward to attending the event.
Dear President Gould,
I write to applaud the courageous statement you issued last week in defense of academic freedom at Brooklyn College. As a former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I can say I haven’t seen a finer defense of the right of students and faculty to engage in critical examination of difficult issues. On this question, the supporters of Israel have been notoriously remiss, being willing to violate deeply held principles of academic freedom in order to cynically support their political cause. Only their views, it seems, have the right to free expression; those they disagree with they would ban from any public hearing. You have said it more eloquently than I can–this is not a situation universities should countenance. I urge you to stand fast, to reiterate what you’ve said on this question, and to permit the meeting on BDS to go forward as planned. Too many university administrators have been cowed by the thuggish tactics of these lobbyists on behalf of the current right-wing Israeli government. I hope you will provide the leadership we need to prevent that from happening at Brooklyn College.
Joan W. Scott
Dear President Gould,
As a writer and an admirer of Brooklyn College and its remarkable faculty, I’m contacting you to urge you not to submit to pressure from local politicians and encourage or compel the political science department to rescind its co-sponsorship of the upcoming panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Clearly such co-sponsorship does not constitute the endorsement of a political position that deserves to be aired without eliciting threats of financial or political reprisal.
The attempted political bullying of committed researchers and serious thinkers is of course beyond your control. But it rests with administrators like you to resist such tactics and take a stand for academic freedom. I don’t doubt you will do just that. But encouragement in the right course can be useful in situations like the one you face, and please know that you have mine.
Dear President Gould,
I am writing in my capacity as President of the American Studies Association to urge you to stand up against the pressure to force the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College to withdraw their co-sponsorship of the upcoming event on BDS. Though couched in the language of “academic freedom,” much of the opposition to this event–including the recent letter from a group of New York office-holders–is odious in its conflation of the department’s merely co-sponsoring a discussion on the one hand with the university’s “officially endorsing” certain views on the other. This proposition corrodes the spirit and the very mission of a university, whose raison d’être is to create space for expressions without having to worry about the appearance of “officially endorsing” them. It is especially disturbing when voiced by elected officials in direct violation of the intellectual autonomy of a university in their jurisdiction. Surely these office-holders know that their constituents, including New Yorkers in general and Brooklyn College students in particular, have easy access to the strong arguments, views, analyses, and passions arrayed against BDS. Their “equal time” argument is itself a familiar tactic for shutting down discussion; their attention to “academic freedom,” disingenuous at best, a ruse at worst.
Neither I nor the American Studies Association are concerned here with a position on BDS; but we do know the dangers in elected officials trying to dictate the content of university centered discussions, courses, or events. BDS represents precisely the sort of minoritarian speech that academic freedom is meant to protect, and I urge you to reject the specious arguments to the contrary.
Matthew Frye Jacobson
William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History
If you wish to contact the Brooklyn College administration, contact info is here. As always, be polite, civil, and firm.
• • • • •
What is it about being a great power that renders the imagining of its own demise so potent? Why, despite all the strictures about the prudent and rational use of force, are those powers so quick to resort to it?
Perhaps it is because there is something deeply appealing about the idea of disaster, about manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe. For disaster and catastrophe can summon a nation, at least in theory, to plumb its deepest moral and political reserves, to have its mettle tested, on and off the battlefield. However much leaders and theorists may style themselves the cool adepts of realpolitik, war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation.
Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what conservatives since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of liberal democratic culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life—reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, ennui—war is modernity’s great answer to itself. “War is inescapable,” Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but “because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.” Though this sensibility seeps across the political spectrum, it is essentially an ideal of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which found its greatest fulfillment during the years of Fascist triumph (“war is to men,” Mussolini said, “as maternity is to women”)—and is once again, it seems, prospering in our own time as well.
Nowhere in recent memory has this romanticism been more apparent than in the neoconservative arguments during the Bush years about prewar intelligence, how to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether or not to use torture. Listening to the neocon complaints about U.S. intelligence during the run-up to the war, one could hear distant echoes of Carlyle’s assault on the “Mechanical Age” (“all is by rule and calculated contrivance”) and Chateaubriand’s despair that “certain eminent faculties of genius” will “be lost, and imagination, poetry and the arts perish.” Richard Perle was not alone in his impatience with what Seymour Hersh calls the intelligence community’s “susceptibility to social science notions of proof.” Before he became secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld criticized the refusal of intelligence analysts to use their imaginations, “to make estimates that extended beyond the hard evidence they had in hand.” Once in office, he mocked analysts’ desire to have “all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it.” His staffers derided the military quest for “actionable intelligence,” for information solid enough to warrant assassinations and other preemptive acts of violence. Outside the government, David Brooks blasted the CIA’s “bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians” and praised those analysts who make “novelistic judgments” informed by “history, literature, philosophy and theology.”
Rumsfeld’s war on the rule-bound culture and risk aversion of the military revealed a deep antipathy to law and order—not something stereotypically associated with conservatives but familiar enough to any historian of twentieth-century Europe (and, indeed, any historian of conservative thought more generally). Issuing a secret directive that terrorists should be captured or killed, Rumsfeld went out of his way to remind his generals that the goal was “not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” Aides urged him to support operations by U.S. Special Forces, who could conduct lightning strikes without approval from generals. Otherwise, they warned, “the result will be decision by committee.” One of Rumsfeld’s advisers complained that the military had been “Clintonized,” which could have meant anything from becoming too legalistic to being too effeminate. (Throughout the Bush years, there was an ongoing struggle within the security establishment over the protocols of machismo.) Geoffrey Miller, the man who made “Gitmo-ize” a household word, relieved a general at Guantanamo for being too “soft—too worried about the prisoners’ well-being.”
By now it seems self-evident that the neocons were drawn into Iraq for the sake of a grand idea: not the democratization of the Middle East, though that undoubtedly had some appeal, or even the creation of an American empire, but rather an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neocons, like that of America’s perennially autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: at their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything—not even by the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.
If Torture, Sanford Levinson’s edited collection of essays, is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neocons in the Bush White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?
It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago has been tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, at the height of the war in Iraq, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of American-held prisoners there either were in jail by mistake or posed no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believed torture did not produce accurate information.
These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism. The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses the specific kinds of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she writes:
Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.
Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba Report, making her list of do’s and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb itself. Even her list of taboos is stylized, omitting actually committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s ass. What about a banana [pdf]? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees”? She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses “solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.” What about the “bitch in the box,” where prisoners are stuffed in a car trunk and driven around Baghdad in 120° heat? She supports “psychological pressure,” quoting from an article that “the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.” What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in Marathon Man. Small wonder there’s “no argument there”: there is no there there.
The unreality of Elshtain’s analysis is not incidental or peculiar to her. Even writers who endorse torture but remain squeamish about it can’t escape such abstractions. The more squeamish they are, in fact, the more abstractions they indulge in. Sanford Levinson, for example, tentatively discusses Alan Dershowitz’s proposal that government officials should be forced to seek warrants from judges in order to torture terrorist suspects. Hoping to make the reality of torture, and the pain of its victims, visible and concrete, Levinson insists that “the person the state proposes to torture should be in the courtroom, so that the judge can take no refuge in abstraction.” But then Levinson asks us to consider “the possibility that anyone against whom a torture warrant is issued receives a significant payment as ‘just compensation’ for the denial of his or her right not to be tortured.” Having just counseled against abstraction, Levinson resorts to the greatest abstraction of all—money—as payback for the greatest denial of rights imaginable.
If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls “moralistic code fetishism” and “rule-mania” and what we might simply call “the rule of law.” But where the Bush White House sought to be entirely free of rules and laws—and here the theoreticians depart from the practitioners—the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules.
There are two reasons. One reason, which Michael Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in Torture, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible—or forces us to acknowledge the problem of “dirty hands.” Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead “to refuse ‘absolutism’ without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,” to admit the simultaneous necessity for—and evil of torture.
Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, “who knows that he can’t do what he has to do—and finally does” it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils, or two competing goods, that is at stake here, a reminder that we must “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,” that “the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.” The dilemma, rather than the solution, is what Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. Torturers must be denied their Kant and Bentham—and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of “eternal principles,” as Isaiah Berlin put it, “by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.”
But there is another reason some writers insist on a ban on torture they believe must also be violated. How else to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality? As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders “should not seek to legalize” torture. “They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.” What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinizing of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the “same moralistic-legalism” she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that “freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.”
But if the ban on torture must be maintained, what is a nation to do with the torturers who have violated it, who have, after all, broken the law? Naturally the nation must put them on trial; “the interrogator,” in Elshtain’s words, “must, if called on, be prepared to defend what he or she has done and, depending on context, pay the penalty.” In what may be the most fantastic move of an already fantastic discussion, several of writers on torture—even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against the practice—imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court. For only through a public legal proceeding, Levinson writes, will we “reinforce the paradoxical notion that one must condemn the act even if one comes to the conclusion that it is indeed justified in a particular situation,” a notion, he acknowledges, that is little different from the comment of Admiral Mayorga, one of Argentina’s dirtiest warriors: “The day we stop condemning torture (although we tortured), the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerrilla sons (although they are guerrillas) is the day we stop being human beings.”
By now it should be clear why we use the word “theater” to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft. Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions. Like stage actors, political actors are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s—or century’s—reviews will bring. It might seem difficult to imagine Liza Minnelli playing Henry Kissinger, but I’m not sure the part would be such a stretch. And what of the intellectuals who advise these leaders or the philosophers who analyze their dilemmas? Are they playwrights or critics, directors or audiences? I’m not entirely sure, but the words of their greatest spiritual predecessor might give us a clue. “I love my native city more than my own soul,” cried Machiavelli, quintessential teacher of the hard ways of state. Change “native city” to “child,” replace “my own soul” with “myself,” and we have the justification of every felonious stage mother throughout history, from the Old Testament’s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy’s ball-busting Rose.