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.