Jan 10

When Academics Attack!

Posted by A Writer


I haven't been to the Modern Language Association's Convention in two years now, owing to a lack of interviews (I already have a good gig, and it would only make sense to shift if the job was better…so I'm down to sending out between five and eight applications a year now to places with a serious level of competition) and a total lack of interest in attending an event which its organizers has decided would be best placed between Christmas and New Year's–when academics are pining for the joy of meeting other academics rather than getting to see their families and actually relax for a couple of days.  The MLA has finally seen the light and is shifting the date to after January 1st (after years of being told by its members that this is an absolute necessity) though it won't actually happen until 2009.  Moral: academics take a long time to decide about things which ought to be self-evident.

I had heard from friends who went to this conference in Chicago that I hadn't missed anything (as usual), and so had happily forgotten all about it–when what should I stumble upon but this little gem from Inside Higher Ed.  That's right, kids; apparently there was a full out dust-up at the annual meeting, and I missed it.  (If you knew and didn't tell me, I forgive you.  Reluctantly.)  Evidently there were two major issues at the heart of the battle royale–the second one, which involved the ever-controversial Ward Churchill (the professor fired from his tenured position at the University of Colorado at Boulder either for "research misconduct" or for calling some of the 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," depending on whose side you're on), I have to reluctantly save for another day so I can concentrate on issue one: the support for those who criticize Zionism. 

Yep, that's basically the request.  And I'm not really oversimplifying it: the resolution, originally drafted by the MLA's Radical Caucus (I love that name…would be cooler if they replaced "radical" with "revolutionary," but one freedom fight at a time, I suppose), called for the MLA to "defend academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel."  As the article in Inside Higher Ed points out, there is no mention made in the resolution of defending the rights of faculty and invited speakers to, say, support Zionism and Israel, or criticize Hamas.  This is strictly about supporting the right of academics to criticize Israel.  But this is obviously an oversight, you say.  They want to support everyone's right to speak…they were just talking about a specific issue which involved Israel this time around.  Right?

Er…no, actually.

As it turns out, there isn't one specific precipitating factor for this resolution.  It's just a general "lots of people who don't like Israel aren't getting to say so and that sucks" proclamation.  And while I'm all in favor of proclamations (we really don't have enough of them these days, right?), I'm having a hard time seeing how this one would be either helpful or fair.  And I'm not the only one; Cary Nelson (who ironically enough wrote a book called Manifesto of a Tenured Radical…which either means he's mellowing or selling out, again depending on your point of view) found the first resolution "incredibly divisive and quite destructive" and wrote an alternate resolution suggesting in part that it was "essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue," which passed in lieu of the original one by a two to one margin.  Problem solved, right?  Well, not entirely…because according to Inside Higher Ed, the people who supported the first resolution thought Nelson's version was too "even-handed."

Come again?

Yep.  Apparently the "facts on the ground" indicate that this isn't a "50-50 situation"; in other words, there isn't more than one side to the issue.  Israel is the problem, and their supporters already "meddle on campuses."  So supporting the right of someone to support Israel publicly, or criticize those who would discriminate against the supporters, doesn't work.  We need, in the words of Dr. Barbara Foley, to "talk about what's real here."  Real being, apparently, that Israel can take care of itself.

And it's through the looking glass we go, boys and girls!

I'm not sure where to start here.  First of all, I am on face deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to have the absolute and definitive answer to a subject who is unwilling to answer questions and face scrutiny concerning that answer…particularly when the subject is as deeply complex as the situation in the Middle East.  There is no question that Israel has made many, many mistakes, and often carried itself with a sense of arrogance and entitlement (to say nothing of its violent overreactions) which has made things worse.  There's also no question that speaking to dedicated Israelites is often difficult–I have many friends who are perfectly rational people on all other subjects, but mention Israel and their eyes glaze over (for them this isn't a rational calculus but an emotional one, and I respect the difference).  But the idea that Israel is solely responsible for the problems in the Middle East, given the fractured and often violent behavior of the Palestinian establishment, is as absurd as the idea that Israel is wholly blameless.  If it's not 50/50 (it's up to you to decide what the exact ratio is), there's certainly plenty of blame to go around.

But all of this is really irrelevant because of the second point: even if Israel were responsible for everything bad in the world and sent its avatars around to kick puppies (those heartless bastards!), the original resolution is such a caricature of true academic freedom it's breathtaking.  Let me get this straight: we should get external agents the hell out of our internal academic affairs, and demand that we defend the free consciences of our fellow faculty members, just so long as they feel like taking a shot at Israel.  If those fellow faculty members choose to defend Israel, though, forget about the free conscience and pass the gag.  We certainly wouldn't want to be "even-handed." 

Have we gone mad?

The point of academic freedom is that professors should have the right to espouse whatever theories, ideas and beliefs they choose (so long as they do not require their students to agree with them in the case of subjective opinions, which has its own problems) without fear of retribution.  That's all.  It doesn't allow for exceptions, like "you can't support Israel openly."  Uh-uh.  It stands for everyone or no one; that's how it works.  Thus far I assume most of you are probably nodding your heads rather impatiently.  Obviously free speech means "free."  What's the controversy here?

But that's just the problem: for some reason, the moderate and fair approach ultimately taken by the MLA here (something which has not always been true in the past) is being seen in many quarters as cowardly and driven by political correctness, not a reasonable sense of fair play.  "Shame on the MLA for insisting on the masquerade that they are being even handed by protecting the rights of all.  The fact of the matter is that they are siding with entrenched power while turning a blind eye to the one sided silencing of dissidents," proclaims Levon Chorbajian, a professor of sociology.  "This is not moderation but cowardice with the MLA repeating the past history of their predecessors and the Screen Writers Guild in the McCarthy era," says the appropriately named "Viper."  Siding with entrenched power, no doubt, because of the MLA's misguided belief that freedom means what it says: free.

I'm sorry to say it, but break it all down and you begin to see the real problem here: academia, never known for its close connection to reality, has grown so out of touch that it now believes that positions like ones in which people assert that one-sidedness is virtue and fair-mindedness vice are reasonable ones to have.  In no other arena could the statement "this is too even-handed" be made without getting laughed out of the room.  I despise David Horowitz and his perverse appeal to open-mindedness in college classrooms (an appeal which relies on closed-mindedness from outside of them) largely because that appeal is so disingenuous…but how is this any different?  Because we're beating up Israel instead of Bush?  Sorry, that doesn't wash.  Either we support the rights of those on all sides of the issue to discuss it freely, without fear of censure, and let the famous marketplace of ideas do its work, or we shut the whole damn marketplace down and throw free expression out the window in the process. 

Ultimately, of course, there aren't too many people in the general population who give a damn or even know much about the MLA, except maybe as those folks who put out that book that shows how to do a Works Cited page for high school English.  But it's interesting both that the MLA tried to be relevant and fair minded for a change, and now is getting hammered for its trouble.  I can't wait for the sequel: When Academics Attack–The Unrated Version.  Now that should make for some fun holiday entertainment.