Tag Archives: Glenn Greenwald

Shit and Curses, and Other Updates on the Steven Salaita Affair (Updated)

7 Aug

1. Yesterday, University of Nevada professor Gautam Premnath called the University of Illinois to protest the hirefire of Steven Salaita. A giggly employee in the Chancellor’s office told Premnath that Salaita was “dehired.”

2.Within 24 hours, nearly 8000 people have signed a petition calling on the University of Illinois to reinstate Salata. You should too. While you’re at it, please make sure to email the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, at at pmwise@illinois.edu. Please cc Robert Warrior of the American Indian Studies department (rwarrior@illinois.edu) and the department itself: ais@illinois.edu.

3. This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a fuller report on the Salaita affair. Among the new facts revealed: First, it was a tenured position that Salaita was offered. Second, the offer was made last October by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Third, the national AAUP has distanced itself from Cary Nelson, saying he “does not speak for the association.” (In this statement, the AAUP distances itself even further.) And, last, in the faculty’s deliberations on hiring Salaita, his tweets did not come “up as a topic of concern or conversation” on the reasonable ground that they did not deem “social media as being somehow scholarly content.”

4. The Illinois AAUP Committee A has a very strong statement on the affair:

The AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states in reference to extramural utterances: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” It affirms that “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” While Professor’s Salaita’s tweets are construed as controversial, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms the virtue of controversial speech.

Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East. Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.

One must not conjecture about a link between extramural statements and the quality of classroom teaching, absent an unmistakable link that would raise issues of competence. None exist here. Indeed, we affirm that fitness to teach can be enhanced with conviction, commitment and an engagement with the outside world.

5. Michael Bérubé also has a strong statement:

While I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments with regard to content, and find them to be often intemperate expressions of opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I urge you to reconsider your decision. Indeed, I urge you to reconsider precisely because I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments. It is a truism that academic freedom is meaningless unless it covers unpopular (and even intemperate) speech; and that, finally, is what is at stake here– the question of whether academic freedom at the University of Illinois will be meaningless.

6. It occurs to me that if tweets are now going to be taken into consideration in academic hires, I want my entire social media presence included in all future considerations of my career. I want the number of tweets and FB posts I do per year to be included in my publication count. I want the number of retweets and “likes” that I get to be included in my citation count. And I want my friend Doug Henwood to be considered for an academic appointment. As he says, “With my Klout score, I’m on my way to an endowed chair.”

7. Glenn Greenwald tweets that there’s “lots more coming on this.” If I were Chancellor Wise, I’d be nervous. Very nervous. If Glenn’s on the story, I have little doubt what the ultimate outcome will be.

8. And last, this report,  from today’s Guardian, on the most moral army in the world:

When Ahmed Owedat returned to his home 18 days after Israeli soldiers took it over in the middle of the night, he was greeted with an overpowering stench.

He picked through the wreckage of his possessions thrown from upstairs windows to find that the departing troops had left a number of messages. One came from piles of faeces on his tiled floors and in wastepaper baskets, and a plastic water bottle filled with urine.

If that was not clear enough, the words “Fuck Hamas” had been carved into a concrete wall in the staircase. “Burn Gaza down” and “Good Arab = dead Arab” were engraved on a coffee table. The star of David was drawn in blue in a bedroom.

It’s a strange universe we live in, where high-minded professors fret more about the “foul-mouthed” tweets of a scholar than the shit and curses soldiers leave in the destroyed homes of civilians.

Update (3 pm)

Just received a copy of a very strongly worded letter from the Center for Constitutional Rights. In addition to making all the right arguments re academic freedom and the First Amendment, it contains three factual statements, which I had not read anywhere else

The first:

As you well know, in October 2013, the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences made an offer to Professor Salaita for an appointment, with tenure, in the College’s American Indian Studies program; he soon after accepted your offer (which the University confirmed in writing) and resigned from his tenured position in the English Department at Virginia Tech University. Your offer letter expressly stressed the University’s adherence to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure….His views (which he has long aired passionately and openly in many forums, including social media) are no doubt considered highly controversial by many in this country, but Professor Salaita could rest assured that his tenured position and the foundational principles of academic freedom and expression would permit him to share his views without fear of censure or reprisal.

That express affirmation in the offer letter of the AAUP principles seems like it could pose a potential problem for the University.

The second:

Nevertheless, despite Professor Salaita’s obvious reliance on the terms of the University’s appointment – by resigning from his tenured position at Virginia Tech, renting his Virginia home and preparing his entire family to move – you summarily terminated his appointment to a tenured position, without notice or any opportunity to be heard or to object. Your August 1, 2014 letter references your Office’s failure to seek or obtain final authorization from the Board of Trustees as the reason for the termination of Professor Salaita; yet, leaving aside the procedural irregularities in your rationale,³…

And then, in the footnote, comes this:

Although Professor Salaita’s appointment was effective August 16th, your termination letter stated that his appointment would not be recommended for submission to the Board in September, after his start date.

In other words, even under the best of circumstances, Salaita’s appointment was scheduled to be effective before the Board was scheduled to vote to approve it.

Last, the CCR letter references a letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressly requesting that the University of Illinois rescind its offer. I wasn’t aware of this letter, but it’s discussed here. The letter states:

We strongly believe that a person… with such aberrational views cannot be trusted to confine his discussions to his area of study. We urge you to reconsider his appointment and look forward to immediately discussing this serious matter with you.

Aberrational views. They used to be the pride and joy of the Jewish people, from Abraham to Kafka and Freud. Now we fire people for having them.

Update (midnight)

Another strong letter, signed by Natalie Davis, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, A’sad Abukhail, and many more, calling “upon UIUC in the strongest terms to reverse its decision immediately and reinstate Professor Salaita”:

We should not forget why John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Edwin Seligman, the founders of the AAUP, sought to protect academic freedom—to ensure that academics could act as a check on the tyranny of public opinion. Furthermore, academics are free to address issues of public concern, as are all American citizens. Indeed, Dewey, Lovejoy, and Seligman recognized that university boards had become the major threats to academic freedom.

Jews Without Israel

6 Sep

In shul this morning, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi spoke at length about the State of Israel. This is more surprising than you might think. I’ve been going to this shul since I moved to Brooklyn in 1999, and if memory serves, it’s only been in the last two or three years that the rabbi has devoted at least one of her High Holy Days talks to Israel.

Throughout the aughts, Israel didn’t come up much in shul. During flash points of the Second Intifada, you might hear a prayer for Jewish Israelis or nervous temporizing about some action in Jenin or Gaza. But I can’t recall an entire sermon devoted to the State of Israel and its meaning for Jews.

That’s also how I remember much of my synagogue experience as a kid. Don’t get me wrong: Israel was central to my Jewish education. My entire family—my five sisters, my parents, and my grandfather—visited there with our synagogue in 1977. Several of my sisters, as well as my parents, have been back. The safety of Israel was always on my mind; I remember spending many a Friday night service imagining a terrorist attack on our synagogue, so short seemed the distance between suburban New York and Tel Aviv. I wrote about Israel in school essays (I actually defended its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre). I had a strong feeling for Israel (or what I thought was Israel): a combination of hippie and holy, Godly and groovy, a feeling well captured by Steven Spielberg in Munich.

But for all of Israel’s role in my Jewish upbringing, I don’t remember my rabbi talking about the state all that much. In fact, the only time I remember him bringing it up was in 1982, not long after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. This was the first time that I became aware of international criticism of Israel. I had known, of course, about Arab and Palestinian opposition to the state, but in the world of American Jewry, that was all too easy to dismiss. The 1982 invasion, however, was especially controversial and brought Israel intense criticism from across the globe. Or at least sufficiently intense that I noticed.

Our rabbi—Chaim Stern, who edited the prayer book that’s now used at Reform synagogues across the country—was wry and erudite, not given to hot pronouncements. But something in the air that year stirred him to defend the State of Israel against its many critics. I’ve forgotten most of what he said, but one comment stuck with me: Israel should be allowed to be a normal state. We shouldn’t demand of Israel that it be a nation above others; we should let it be a state among others. Stern didn’t mean what many of us would now take that statement to mean: that Israel should be held to the same standard as other states, particularly states that claim to be liberal democracies. He meant that it should be free to hunt and kill its enemies. Just like any other state.

But aside from this one instance, my memory of my rabbi is that he was relatively silent on the topic. Israel was so much a part of the moral and material fabric of our lives that it didn’t require elaborate sermons and defenses or justifications. It (or an image of it) was something we lived rather than something we were lectured about.

And that’s how it had mostly been at the shul I now attend in Brooklyn. Until about two years ago. I remember the rabbi first taking up the topic in earnest in 2011 (or was it 2010?), almost apologetically, saying that we in the shul had been too quiet about Israel. It was time to talk. And by talk, she meant defend. Israel was under attack, politically and ideologically; its status in the culture could no longer be taken for granted. We had to speak up on its behalf. I remember wondering at the time whether she wasn’t responding to some specific call from other rabbis, a sense that Israel was beginning to lose control of the conversation not just internationally but in the US as well.

But what’s become clear to me since then—and this morning’s sermon confirmed it—is that it’s not the goyim the rabbis are worried about; it’s Jews. And not merely anti-Zionist, middle-aged lefty Jews like me but also younger Jews who are indifferent to Zionism.

In her talk this morning, the rabbi cited a statistic: where 80 percent of Jews over 65 feel that the destruction of the State of Israel would be a personal tragedy, only 50 percent of Jews under 35 feel the same way. I have no idea if this is true or what study it’s based on (this article in Tablet cites the same statistic), and admittedly it’s a high (and kind of weird) bar upon which to hang and measure support for the State of Israel. But my anecdotal sense is that there is something to it. Earlier this year, I had a drink with a 20-something journalist who’s Jewish. He said most Jews his age didn’t think or care all that much about Israel. Where Jews my age had to work toward our opposition to Israel—overcoming heated criticism and feelings of betrayal from friends and family—Jews his age, he suggested, could simply slough off the state as if it were so many old clothes.

But what most stood out for me from this morning’s sermon was how nervous the rabbi was about bringing up the topic. After talking a bit about how Israel felt to her as a kid (her memories are much like mine), she said that nowadays it seemed as if one couldn’t have a conversation with another Jew about Israel without fearing that it would explode into an argument. So fraught is the topic, she said, that many of us have opted not to talk about it at all. An uneasy silence had descended upon the Jewish community—an anxious modus vivendi in which we don’t agree to disagree but agree not to discuss—and it was this, more than anything, that worried her.

Now there are many reasons why a Jew would be made nervous by such a silence. Jews like to pride themselves on their tradition of argument and internal dissent. For every two Jews, three opinions, and so on. (That’s often not been my experience of Jews and Judaism, but it’s certainly a part of our sense of ourselves). Judaism, moreover, is not a religion of inner lights, of atomistic individuals who do their own thing. Ours is the religion of a people, a people with a rather insistent sense of collectivity. We do not shuffle into private confessionals; we declare our guilt publicly and communally. On Yom Kippur, we recite all the offenses we have committed against God and to each other (my personal favorite is “stiff-neckedness”). Individually, we may not have committed all of them, but that doesn’t matter. Somewhere, someone in the community did, and we’re all responsible.

But the rabbi wasn’t concerned about the conversation about Israel for these reasons. Something else seemed to be bothering her. If Jews can’t speak to each other about Israel, how can they defend the state to the rest of the country, much less the world? If defenders of Israel can’t make the case to the Jewish people, to whom can they make the case? Instead of issuing a call to arms, the rabbi pleaded for civility: let’s learn to speak to each other with mutual regard and respect, not to demonize each other simply because we take different positions on the State of Israel. Though she framed this as a universal injunction, I suspect she was speaking more personally. It seemed as if she felt like she had been demonized for her support for Israel (which is not, I should hasten to add, uncritical support but probably something closer to Peter Beinart’s liberal Zionism). And not by Arabs or the French, but by other Jews, perhaps even Jews in her own congregation.

I know how she feels. Though I grew up in a Zionist family, my position on Israel began to shift during my last years as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. In my junior year, I studied at Jesus College, Oxford. On the one hand, the experience solidified my identity as a Jew. Growing up in suburban Westchester, I never felt marked as other, as exotic or alien or strange. But at Oxford I did (I remember visiting a friend’s family over the Christmas holiday. Upon my arrival, the first thing they remarked upon was my being Jewish. It was as if they had been talking about it for weeks, wondering what they would do with this Jew once he crossed the threshold.) I came away from my year in England not only more identified as a Jew but also more interested in being Jewish.

On the other hand, that was the year of the Intifada, which set me on a path of questioning the State of Israel. When I returned to the States, I heard Edward Said speak on campus. I was mesmerized (anyone who had the privilege of hearing Said on Israel/Palestine knows what I’m talking about).

Coming out of these experiences, I recommitted myself to Judaism while rejecting Zionism. I learned how to be a Jew without Israel.

My break with Israel didn’t happen all at once. It was a process, but it did have an end point. In the summer of 1993, I was in Tennessee with my then-girlfriend, who was doing dissertation research there. Toward the end of the summer, I bought a copy of Said’s The Question of Palestine and read it in two days. As we drove back to New Haven, all hell broke loose. She was Jewish and at the time a firm if critical believer in Israel as a Jewish state. I began the car ride by voicing some tentative criticisms, but the conversation quickly escalated. It ended with me declaring that no child of mine would ever step foot in the State of Israel (I was kind of melodramatic in those days). We didn’t speak for a week.

That was my last experience of really getting into it with another Jew over Israel. I learned my lesson. I kept quiet. For about a decade and a half. The topic was simply too painful. I would only talk about it with ideologically sympathetic friends (and a couple of my sisters, who had come around to the same position as me) or with non-Jews. I couldn’t bear the feeling that I was being disloyal to the Jewish people; it was as if I had turned my back on my own family. I didn’t change my position; I just didn’t publicize or push it.

But something has changed in the last few years. The BDS movement has made great strides, critics like Ali Abunimah provide thousands of followers on Twitter with a constant stream of vital information we wouldn’t get elsewhere, books like Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby (whatever you think of its thesis) have blown open a topic long considered taboo, and respected voices in the mainstream media like Glenn Greenwald (and before him, Tony Judt) have made it possible for Jews to speak our minds on the topic. Now my little tribe within a tribe is more vocal, and suddenly it is our opponents who feel like they have to be careful around us and not vice versa.

I don’t want to overstate things. The pro-Israel forces still have an iron grip on the conversation in Congress (not to mention the expenditures and actions of the American state as a whole); critics of Israel are still vulnerable on college campuses; and lock-step support for Israel is still a requirement for mainstream respectability in most of the mainstream media.

I also wouldn’t want to make too much of a few sermons at my shul in Brooklyn, which despite being Conservative is politically progressive. I suspect the conversation in other shuls is rather different.

Still, if what my rabbi says is any indication, something may be happening in the Jewish community. If we look beneath the world of AIPAC and high politics, if we pay attention to the everyday conversation and its unspoken rules of discretion, we may be seeing a subtle shift in manners and mores that portends something larger and more fundamental.

I don’t know what that something larger is, or will be, and despite what Montesquieu and Tocqueville taught us, the politics of politesse is just that. Even so, for the first time in 20 years, I’m hopeful.

Shanah Tovah.

What do Glenn Greenwald, Alan Dershowitz, and the Israeli UN Ambassador have in common?

27 Feb

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.

One politician doubles down, one politician backs down, and one student stands up

5 Feb

So much has happened today it’s hard to keep up.  So a quick round-up of the news (and some items from yesterday).

1. The major development of the day is that City Councilwoman Letitia James has publicly retracted her signature to that Fidler letter, which threatens to cut off funding to Brooklyn College and CUNY, a point Fidler doubled down on in an interview tonight.

2. This morning, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould delivered a powerful defense of our department and of academic freedom.

3. That defense has now been endorsed by the New York Times. In a strong editorial, the Times writes:

We do, however, strongly defend the decision by Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to proceed with the event, despite withering criticism by opponents and threats by at least 10 City Council members to cut city funding for the college. Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.

The sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country. Too often in the United States, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests.

4.  This morning, Glenn Greenwald made the strongest argument for why this has become a classic showdown between the state and the freedom to propound heterodox and alternative views. We are now, as Glenn reminds us, reprising the battle between Guiliani and the Brooklyn Museum. Only it’s the City Council and Brooklyn College. And as I asked earlier in the day: Where does Mike Bloomberg stand on this? This article in the Forward also focuses us on the question of what will the state do.

5. My colleague Louis Fishman in the history department, who’s a specialist in the history of the Middle East, wrote a terrific post today. You should read it.

6. The story has made its way into the Los Angeles Times, SalonDaily Beast (again), and Huffington Post, among other places.

7. One small point that has gotten very little attention in all this brouhaha. Our department wrote a letter to our students over the weekend (which we also issued as a public statement). We reiterated our long-standing policy of entertaining requests for co-sponsorship from any and all student groups, departments, and programs, but we also made a point of noting that “since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department’s co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views.” To date, we still not have received any such request.

8. There is a petition out there, which has garnered more than 1500 signatures in less than 24 hours. Please sign and circulate it; there is a plan, I’m told, to present it at some point later this week.

9. I don’t have phone numbers or contacts, but I urge you to find them and call/email the city councilors on this letter, sans Letitia James, who are standing by their threat to de-fund CUNY if Brooklyn College does not meet their demands that we speak only the words they want spoken. I also urge you to contact any of the progressive officials who signed off on this letter, particularly the members of Congress—sans Nadler; he’s hopeless—and Bill de Blasio and Brad Lander.

10. If you haven’t had a chance yet to watch Chris Hayes’s magnificent summation of everything that’s at stake in this controversy, well, watch it. Here.

11. And now my favorite moment in this whole controversy. Zujaja Tauqeer, a former student in my modern political thought class and now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, wrote a terrific letter to President Gould, laying out her position on this controversy. No matter how difficult things can get at Brooklyn College and at CUNY, it is students like Zujaja who remind me of what I’m doing and why I am doing it. She gets the last word.

Dear President Gould,

I hope this letter finds you well. As a Brooklyn College alumnus, a Rhodes Scholar, and the commencement speaker and class representative for the 2011 graduating class, I urge you to continue upholding the principles of academic freedom and to allow the Political Science Department to co-sponsor, as originally planned, the panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been scheduled to take place at BC.

As you and Provost Tramontano are aware, I know all too well how fragile freedom of speech can be. As a beneficiary of political asylum by the US, I am horrified to see the kinds of perverse tactics used to marginalize minority communities and viewpoints in less developed countries being introduced in an American public educational institution for the express purpose of stifling the freedom of speech, and therefore the freedom of conscience, of students and faculty. Elected officials and trustees who hold the public trust are now trying to force you to join them in betraying that very trust. They are seeking to deprive the Political Science Department of its right—and responsibility—to sponsor discussions that may conflict with the convictions of those in a position of power.

As a Rhodes Scholar selected from Brooklyn College, I have tried my utmost to represent my alma mater as a progressive institution whose commitment to freedom and toleration vindicate the sacrifices students and alumni like myself have made to pursue a liberal arts education here. Though in the past BC has stumbled in its effort to preserve civil liberties on campus, I am confident that as president you will capably show that academic freedom, so crucial to critical scholarship and democratic citizenship, is non-negotiable.

I recall at this time the motto of our school—nil sine magno labore. We cannot ensure for future students and faculty the freedoms promised to them as citizens of this country if we as an institution back down from the effort needed to uphold those very freedoms now when they are threatened by vested interests. If I can support you in any way in helping to make this case to my fellow alumni, our elected officials, and our donors, please do not hesitate to call upon me.


Zujaja Tauqeer ‘11

Keith Gessen, Joan Scott, and others weigh in on Brooklyn College controversy

2 Feb

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 Hikindhave 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.

Keith Gessen

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.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Kunkel

Matthew Frye Jacobson

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
Yale University

If you wish to contact the Brooklyn College administration, contact info is here. As always, be polite, civil, and firm.

An Open Letter to Glenn Greenwald

12 Dec

Dear Glenn:

I liked your recent post criticizing those film critics who are championing Zero Dark Thirty despite its false depiction (and implicit celebration) of the role of torture in capturing Osama bin Laden.

But I think you’re going about this business of criticizing film critics all wrong.

Here’s a little pro-tip I learned in my recent foray as an amateur critic of Lincoln.

Apparently it’s not good form to ask a film to be something other than what it is. You can’t criticize the film you didn’t see—only the film you did see. (I know, James Agee makes a hash of that distinction, but he’s no Roger Ebert.)

In your case, that means you have to criticize the criticism we have, not the criticism you wish we had. So if the critic is defending a film that glorifies torture, you can’t criticize said critic for defending said film. That’s like taking Spielberg to task for not including in a film about black emancipation more depictions of blacks emancipating themselves and pushing for emancipation.

Instead, you should…beats the shit out of me.



Who’s the Greater Threat to Freedom? Chicago or Chick-fil-A?

3 Aug

Whatever you think of Chicago’s and Boston’s attempts to prevent Chick-fil-A from setting up shop in those cities because of its president’s anti-gay views—there’s been a great discussion about this issue among progressive, led by Glenn Greenwald, who’s got the better of the argument, it seems to me—one thing is clear.

No matter how much of a threat to Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s freedom of speech Chicago and Boston’s actions pose—and for the record, I don’t think it’s much (there’s little evidence to suggest Cathy’s fortunes would be so altered by these two individual actions as to compel him to change his positions; that’s not to say, however, that these actions don’t set bad precedents, which is why they must be opposed)—it’s miniscule in comparison to Chick-fil-A’s infringements upon the freedoms of its employees.

As Josh Eidelson makes clear in this must-read from Salon:

It’s now common knowledge that Chick-fil-A wears its brand of Christian conservatism on its sleeve. In a 2007 article, Forbes’ Emily Schmall described how that ethos infused the company’s employment policies. It meant extensive vetting of franchise operators, including interviewing their children and asking about their involvement in “community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.”  “If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” Chick-fil-A founder and chairman S. Truett Cathy told Schmall.

But operators weren’t the only ones being judged on their private lives: Schmall wrote that Cathy “says he would probably fire an employee or terminate an operator who ‘has been sinful or done something harmful to their family members.’”

In 2002, Houston restaurant manager Aziz Latif allegedly was fired the day after he declined to take part in a prayer to Jesus during a training program. He sued Chick-fil-A for discrimination and reached a settlement whose terms have not been made public. Last year, Aziz’s attorney, Ajay Choudhary, told The Collegian that his client had been fired “for not conforming.” “Prayer,” he added, “should be, if anything, a private purpose, not a corporate purpose.” (Choudhary did not respond to a request for comment.)

Praying to Jesus isn’t the only activity Chick-fil-A employees claim has been illegally imposed on them. Brenda Honeycutt, who was hired by a Georgia Chick-fil-A in 1991 and promoted to general manager in 1997, charges that last year her franchise owner/operator began excluding her from management meetings and then fired her so that she would be home with her kids. In May, Honeycutt filed a Civil Rights Act lawsuit against the owner/operator and Chick-fil-A, Inc. The suit alleges that the owner told Honeycutt and three other witnesses “that he terminated the Plaintiff so she could be a stay at home mother.” In the period prior to firing her, it states that he “routinely made comments” to her “suggesting that as a mother she should stay home with her children.” It says she was replaced by a man.

In California, workers charge they were retaliated against for exposing abuse. In a pair of lawsuits, six current and former workers allege a multi-year pattern of sexual harassment by their supervisor. Their attorney, Fernando Tafoya, told Salon that the supervisor has been “using his authority as a manager to abuse the women in the workplace,” including “forcibly kiss[ing] the women, the manager putting his hands down the bra of some women as they’re getting ice from the ice machine, grabbing their genitalia, slapping them on the ass, constantly rubbing up against them when he passes by them.”

“I want this to come to an end,” one of the women, Norma Duarte, told a San Diego CBS station, “and I don’t want him continuing to harass other women in the future like myself.”

Tafoya said that when workers brought complaints to the franchise owner, she “basically just ratified the conduct,” telling them the supervisor “was just playing around, or not taking it seriously.” Tafoya also said that appeals to Chick-fil-A’s corporate office “basically fell on deaf ears.” Now that the lawsuits have been filed, Tafoya said that the national company, through its attorneys, has claimed “that the women are lying, and they’re in a conspiracy to gain money from the employer.” The women range in age from 18 to 40; some speak English, some Spanish.

According to Tafoya, the supervisor called immigration authorities and tried to have two of the six workers deported in retaliation for speaking up: “These are women who have worked loyally for Chick-fil-A, for some [up] to six years, and it wasn’t until they complained about the sexual harassment that suddenly there was an immigration issue.”

Tafoya said he was “shocked” that, when employees raised the issue internally, “the initial response of the corporation wasn’t to order their local franchise to resolve this problem immediately.” In contrast, he said, “The Chick-fil-A national headquarters keep a very strong arm in terms of making sure that Chick-fil-A operates in a certain manner and is putting out a certain message.” The case is currently in discovery, which Tafoya said will determine whether the national corporation becomes a named defendant.

Let me be clear: I very much agree with Greenwald and other liberals that governments cannot punish corporations because of the views of their CEOs. That seems obvious and straightforward.

But let’s be equally clear about two other things:

First, while many of us on the left were made quickly aware of Boston’s and Chicago’s actions against Chick-fil-A and spoke out against them, how many of us had ever heard of these actions against Chick-fil-A’s employees and said anything about them? That’s not an accusation: I myself had never heard of them, and I try to keep up with these things. It’s just a commentary on the state of our discourse where government infringements upon our rights rightfully get attention while the private sector’s don’t.  Once upon a time, that wasn’t the case on the left.

Second, while we are right to protest Boston’s and Chicago’s actions, we need to be mindful of the power differentials. People with lots of money and power can withstand infringements upon their livelihoods; people with not so much money or power can’t. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest Boston or Chicago (and the precedents those actions might set). But it does mean that we need to restore some sense of sociological realism to our analysis of rights and power.

If we think that a wealthy CEO’s freedom of speech can be restricted by putting constraints upon his livelihood—and that, we should remember, is what Chicago and Boston were threatening to do (as opposed to more traditional modes of censorship)—how much more so is that the case when the victim in question is a low-wage employee?

The fact that the offender in the one case is the city of Chicago while in the other it’s a corporation is neither here nor there. As libertarians never stop reminding us, employees who don’t like their employers can take their labor elsewhere.  Well, so can Chick-fil-A.


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