The Cary Nelson Standard of HireFire (Updated) (Updated again)

In his latest interview on the Salaita Affair with Huffington Post, Cary Nelson returns repeatedly to the claim that Salaita is “obsessive” and “obsessive-compulsive” on the topic of Israel and Palestine.

Given, as Nelson acknowledges in the interview (indeed, insists on it), that Israel/Palestine is one of Salaita’s areas of academic research, it’s a strange charge to level at a scholar.

Imagine any of the following statements:

That Einstein fellow: He’s obsessive on this relativity question. Firehire him!

That Arendt gal: She’s obsessive-compulsive about the problem of evil. Keeps coming back to it. Dehire her!

That Nelson fellow: He’s obsessive about the Salaita fellow. He even says he’s been following Salaita’s tweets for months. Firehire him!

Anyone worth her salt in academia is a little obsessive about her topics of interest.

But even if Israel/Palestine were not one of Salaita’s areas of academic research (it’s certainly not mine), in what universe is to legitimate to criticize an American citizen for being concerned—or, yes, obsessed—about grave human rights abuses in another part of the world? (Those people marching on behalf of Soviet Jewry. They’re a little obsessed, aren’t they?) Particularly when his government is funding those abuses.

But the truly revealing moment in this interview comes when Marc Lamont Hill, the host, initiates the following exchange (at 22:45):

Lamont: If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel, should that person be hired?

Nelson: No. I’ve advocated that Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and remove the settlements.

Lamont: Okay.

Nelson: So I’ve taken a position in relation to the Jewish settlers. I think the Occupation is poisonous. I think it needs to come to an end. And I’ve advocated unilateral withdrawal.

Read that exchange carefully and think about what Nelson is saying.

Asked whether a professor should be fired for his positions on Israel, Nelson says no, he shouldn’t because, well, I hold those positions, too. Instead of saying that academic freedom means that a professor should not be removed from his position because of the content of his opinions, whatever those opinions might be, Nelson says he shouldn’t be removed because the opinions he holds are perfectly respectable, and we know they’re perfectly respectable because I, Cary Nelson, happen to hold them myself. Even though Nelson had just said, seconds before this exchange, that differences of opinion should not be the basis for making decisions about hiring and firing. A mindless moment of uttering the catechism, I guess.

I thought Scott Lemieux was exaggerating when he wrote, in a critique of Nelson’s position on Salaita, that “this still doesn’t mean that ‘does the candidate disagree with Cary Nelson about Israeli policy too stridently?’ is a criterion that any responsible hiring committee should be taking into account.”

Turns out, Scott was right: whether and how you agree or disagree with Cary Nelson is in fact Cary Nelson’s standard of who should be hirefired.

Update (11:15 am)

It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter and in the comments that I may have misconstrued Nelson’s position in response to that Hill question. Give me a bit while I try to work out the mistake and will post a correction.

Update (11:45 am)

Thanks to Ari Kohen on Twitter, and two commenters on this post, I realize that I now made two fairly serious mistakes in my account of that exchange between Cary Nelson and Marc Lamont Hill. The first mistake is in the transcription. Hill does not ask “Should that person be hired?”, as I had written; he asks instead, “Should that person be fired?” So that’s my first mistake.

My second mistake is in how I interpreted Hill’s question. When he says, “If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel,” he is not referring to the Jewish inhabitants—i.e., the settlers—as I had thought. He is referring instead to the Palestinians. (And in fact, in his followup question to Nelson, after this exchange that I’ve transcribed, Hill repeats the question and makes clear that he means the Palestinians, not the Jewish settlers.) In other words, Hill is asking Nelson, if a professor believes in Greater Israel, that is, in the removal of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (i.e., ethnic cleansing), should that professor be fired? Nelson says no. Nelson then follows that up with a statement of his own position, which is that the settlers should be removed.

I think I heard the question from Hill as I did because when Hill repeated the question, he thought he had to stipulate that it was a professor advocating the removal of the Palestinians, not the settlers, on the assumption, I guess, that he (Hill) thought Nelson had misinterpreted him to mean the Jewish settlers.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I made a mistake and because of my mistake I attributed a position to Nelson that he does not hold. My apologies to Nelson, and to my readers.

If you’re wondering why I’m not simply taking this post down, it’s because I don’t believe in hiding my mistakes and wouldn’t want to be construed as doing so. Better to just cross out the errors and own up to them publicly.

13 Comments

  1. JHW August 10, 2014 at 10:52 am | #

    Aren’t you misreading this? Marc Lamont Hill asks whether someone who advocates “that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel,” that is, that the Palestinians should be ethnically cleansed in the service of Israeli expansionism, should be hired. And Cary Nelson says “No”! (No, he should not be hired!) The rest, where he describes his policy view, is him reassuring his audience that he’s basically a liberal Zionist, to reinforce the message that he agrees that advocacy of ethnic cleansing is out-of-bounds. The policy view he’s advancing is the exact opposite of that of the person Marc Lamont Hill describes.

    Now, you could still say he’s engaging in the fallacy you accuse him of; effectively, he’s saying, “I agree that this view is horrible, so it should be out of bounds.” But I think most people would agree that a person’s extreme views can at least sometimes be relevant to evaluating their academic merits. (We could all come up with hypotheticals to illustrate this point.)

    • Corey Robin August 10, 2014 at 11:00 am | #

      I think you may be right. Someone else just raised the same issue on Twitter. Am trying to work it through myself, so I appreciate the correction. Will post an update as soon as I have it figured out. Thanks.

  2. Peter Sachs Collopy August 10, 2014 at 11:13 am | #

    I agree with JHW that Nelson isn’t agreeing with the hypothetical professor, but also I just listened to the bit myself, and Hill asks if the professor should be *fired*, not if they should be hired (as your transcript says, but not your analysis). So I think Nelson is saying here that he disagrees with that hypothetical person, but that it’s not a firing offense. And then later in the conversation, he says that he thinks an advocacy of ethnic cleansing could affect the hiring process, but couldn’t form the basis for firing. So I don’t think there’s anything particularly new or deep here in terms of understanding Nelson or the situation.

    • Corey Robin August 10, 2014 at 11:17 am | #

      Yeah, I just noticed my mistake on the transcription process. Am going to fix this once I have it all figured out. I think you’re right in the final conclusion but am not yet sure.

  3. Corey Robin August 10, 2014 at 12:02 pm | #

    I’ve posted the following update in the post (at 11:45) but just in case anyone misses it, I’m reproducing it here. Thanks again to the two commenters above who helped bring this all to my attention. Corey

    ****

    Thanks to Ari Kohen on Twitter, and two commenters on this post, I realize that I now made two fairly serious mistakes in my account of that exchange between Cary Nelson and Marc Lamont Hill. The first mistake is in the transcription. Hill does not ask “Should that person be hired?”, as I had written; he asks instead, “Should that person be fired?” So that’s my first mistake.

    My second mistake is in how I interpreted Hill’s question. When he says, “If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel,” he is not referring to the Jewish inhabitants—i.e., the settlers—as I had thought. He is referring instead the Palestinians. (And in fact, in his followup question to Nelson, after this exchange that I’ve transcribed, Hill repeats the question and makes clear that he means the Palestinians, not the Jewish settlers.) In other words, Hill is asking Nelson, if a professor believes in Greater Israel, that is, in the removal of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (i.e., ethnic cleansing), should that professor be fired? Nelson says no. Nelson then follows that up with a statement of his own position, which is that the settlers should be removed.

    I think I heard the question from Hill as I did because when Hill repeated the question, he thought he had to stipulate that it was a professor advocating the removal of the Palestinians, not the settlers, on the assumption, I guess, that he (Hill) thought Nelson had misinterpreted him to mean the Jewish settlers.

    Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I made a mistake and because of my mistake I attributed a position to Nelson that he does not hold. My apologies to Nelson, and to my readers.

    If you’re wondering why I’m not simply taking this post down, it’s because I don’t believe in hiding my mistakes and wouldn’t want to be construed as doing so. Better to just cross out the errors and own up to them publicly.

  4. observer August 10, 2014 at 3:16 pm | #

    Some stuff I found interesting in the huffpost segment, starting around 7:30 in:

    1. Nelson here claim that Salaita “eliminated most of his tweets” over the weekend.
    Is that true?

    2. Next the host scrutinizes Nelson’s assertion about the tweeting being “obessive”.

    Host: “I tweet 10 to 20 times a day. I’m not sure I’d call it obsessive.”
    Nelson: “are you telling me you have a full time job and you can still do that?”
    Host: “yeah, I work here and I’m a full time faculty member and I still manage to do it”

    Nelson seems genuinely surprised here. Might unfamiliarity with how much some people tweet, including otherwise highly productive people, have biased Nelson’s initial reaction to some degree?

    3. At 08:00 Nelson wavers when pressed.

  5. John Protevi August 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm | #

    I appreciate Corey’s forthrightness here. I think we can ask a further question, not of him, but of the HuffPo producer. Why did they not ask on one of the CFA-Illinois people (http://cfaillinois.org/2014/08/07/cfa-statement-on-steven-salaita-and-u-of-illinois/) or the AAUP of Illinois people (http://academeblog.org/2014/08/06/illinois-aaup-committee-a-statement-on-steven-salaita-and-uiuc/) or the national AAUP people (http://www.aaup.org/media-release/statement-case-steven-salaita) instead of, or in addition to, Nelson?

    • Susan Davis August 11, 2014 at 7:59 am | #

      True — they did not contact the faculty union (CFA) for an opinion, nor did they ask AAUP or AAUP Illinois, or any other faculty members as far as I know. Nelson has positioned himself as the go-to person on Salaita’s treatment and rights, although the organizations he has been a part of (and in the case of AAUP) strongly disagree with his position. see http://www.cfaillinois.org. The Chronicle and Huff Post and Inside Higher Ed have allowed him to do this. Poor Journalism?

      • Susan Davis August 11, 2014 at 8:00 am | #

        Sorry — I meant to say “in the case of the AAUP, he has led,..”

  6. Susan Davis August 10, 2014 at 6:05 pm | #

    Thanks for this, Corey.

  7. hophmi August 11, 2014 at 12:16 pm | #

    “But even if Israel/Palestine were not one of Salaita’s areas of academic research (it’s certainly not mine), in what universe is to legitimate to criticize an American citizen for being concerned—or, yes, obsessed—about grave human rights abuses in another part of the world?”

    Why do you insist on assigning motives to Steve Salaita? Is concern for human rights consistent with tweeting that West Bank settlers should go missing? Is it consistent with tweeting that those who support Israel’s right to exist are awful people? Is it consistent with tweeting that Zionists made antisemitism reputable?

    “Particularly when his government is funding those abuses.”

    I so tire of hearing this nonsensical non-sequitor excuse. Do you think that the US is not funding human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia by buying oil and allowing the Saudis to purchase US-made weapons? Do you think that we do not have a role in funding human rights abuses in China by virtue of allowing them to maintain MFN status? Do you think that the military weapons seized by ISIS would have been seized had we not spent $2 trillion bringing them to Iraq?

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