Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

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!

 

Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

25 Nov

Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.”

My comment was inspired by historian Kate Masur’s excellent New York Times op-ed, which argued that Spielberg’s film Lincoln had essentially left African Americans offstage or in the gallery. In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them. Just as Jews do in Schindler’s List. The difference is that in the case of emancipation, blacks—both free and slave—were actually far more central to the process of their own deliverance.

Thanks in part to documents from the National Archives that historians began to rigorously amass and organize in 1976—resulting in the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867—students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened. As three of the historians who were involved in that project wrote in the path-breaking Slaves No More:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation.

Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.

Which made Spielberg’s decision to focus on Lincoln and a few politicians in Washington all the more perplexing.

After I posted my comment, the estimable Freddie DeBoer asked me a simple, blunt question: Had I seen the film I was pontificating about? Shamefacedly I admitted I hadn’t. (One of the things I love about Freddie’s writing is how quickly and cleanly he cuts into his opponents. I love it even more when I’m not one of them.) But I promised I’d see the film—in return for Freddie reading some of the historical literature. He agreed.

Last night I saw the film. I’m pleased to admit that I was wrong—but in one of those ways that reveals I was more right than I realized.

One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim—Michael Brendan Dougherty pursued this line most forcefully (on Twitter)—is that the film is a biopic called “Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage. (To which my exasperated wife responded, “Schindler’s List also has Schindler in the title. So what?”)

But here’s the thing. Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment—and the politics of emancipation more specifically and more generally. The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes—one is played by James Spader—to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.

Lincoln is obviously important as a steward and an oracle: one of the other things I like about the film is that it shows what a fine line there is in politics between the prophet and the windbag; Lincoln’s stories and pronouncements often prompt either bemused bewilderment (in the case of William Seward, played by David Strathairn) or frustrated rage (in the case of Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill). But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.

So, yes, Lincoln plays a role in Lincoln, but it’s just that: a role. Seward, Spader and his goons, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields)—everyone has a hand in freeing the slaves.

Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.

For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

When you have a screenwriter with Kushner’s range of historical vision, and a filmmaker with Spielberg’s gift for compression, it should be possible to make a different film. A truer, better—and, yes, entertaining—film. For reasons I can’t comprehend, they chose not to, opting instead for a 19th century American version of Schindler’s List.

I didn’t like the original. And I’m not crazy about the remake.

Update (8 pm)

Anthony Kammer on Twitter reminded me of this great quote from Stanley Kubrick about Schindler’s List: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” I’ve never been able to find confirmation for the quote, but it’s so perfect that I had to repeat it here.

Update (9:45 pm)

From Michael Brendan Dougherty (with whom I argued earlier; see above) tonight on Twitter:

After seeing the film, I’m closer to your view than I anticipated. I think you argued better than the other professor.

I’ll admit it: it’s always gratifying to hear this kind of thing. Though I think “the other professor”—Kate Masur—did quite well.

Update (November 26, 12 am)

On FB, Ian Zuckerman brought to my attention this great speech of Frederick Douglass on Haiti.

Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.]….the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right ! [Applause.] Her people fought for it. They suffered for it, and thousands of them endured the most horrible tortures, and perished for it.

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