Steven Salaita: The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom

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“The Inhumanity of Academic Freedom,” a lecture Steven Salaita gave the day before yesterday at the University of Cape Town, is so powerful and echoes so many of the depressing things I have gone through as an agitator and (former) academic in the past several years that I would like to quote it here in full, but I’ll limit myself to quoting a single passage. Please read the lecture from beginning to end: it’s more than worth it. Salaita is a rare truthteller in a fallen world that fancies itself chockablock with truthtellers but which is actually pullulating with hasbaristas of various stripes. Thanks to George Ciccariello-Maher for the heads-up. Thanks to the Imatra IPV Reds Finnish baseball club for the image. (If you think it has nothing to do with the lecture, it means you haven’t read the whole thing.) // TRR

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In the end, we have to apply value judgments (mediated by lawless forces) to balance speech rights with public safety. In societies like the USA and South Africa, steeped in the afterlives of colonization, this task is remarkably difficult. We know that racism is bad, but global economic systems are invested in its survival. We know that anti-Zionism isn’t racism, that, in fact, it is the just position.  Yet no agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech, in large part because maintaining a community is at odds with corporate dominion. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers. 

There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas are serious and which in turn get a hearing. If we conceptualize speech as a market-driven phenomenon, then we necessarily relinquish concern for the vulnerable. We’re left with competing narratives in a system designed to favor the needs of capital. It’s a highly lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, which aspiring pundits and prospective academics are happy to exploit. Corporate and state-run media don’t exist to ratify disinterest, but to reproduce status quos. 

The political left is already restricted, on and beyond campus. The same notions of respectability or common sense that guide discussion of academic freedom also limit the imagination to the mechanical defense of abstractions. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.  

I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society, at least in North America and much of Europe (and, for that matter, the Arab World). Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military—anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing. More than anything, denouncing Israeli aggression has a long record of provoking recrimination. Anti-Zionism has always existed in dialogue with revolutionary politics around the globe, including the long struggle against Apartheid. 

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Hasbara

Here’s a great example of Israeli hasbara targeting Russian speakers.

I found the short post on a friend’s Facebook news feed. It consists of three sentences attached to a powerful image of at least thirty missiles or rockets fired simultaneously.

The message reads (in Russian), “Israel today [sad face emoji]. This is exactly the instance when one photo is worth a thousand words. The world needs to know what’s really going on! — feeling down [sad face emoji].”

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The post has been shared 6,800 times, garnered 451 likes, and elicited 173 comments in the 20 hours since it was published.

We are meant to imagine, of course, that the “photo worth a thousand words” is a photo of a Hamas rocket installation in the Gaza Strip firing its deadly cargo towards the utterly innocent state of Israel.

A simple Google image search turned up several instances of the same image, all of them bearing different dates and captions, none of which link the “photo” in question to Hamas or the current hostilities between Hamas and the IDF.

 

So, in fact, the photo is worthless, except to underscore something we already knew.

Zionist hasbaristas are utterly unscrupulous. They count on people not bothering to check any of their claims, but just to pass the “horrible truth” along, thus confusing more people about the real, complicated facts about the relationship between the state of Israeli and the stateless Palestinians. {TRR}

Aliyah

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Canadian professional wrestler Aliyah. Photo courtesy of WWE

It’s really unpleasant to discover that, for no apparent reason and unbeknownst to you, you have been unfriended long ago by someone you really did think of as a friend,

The funny thing is that, two years ago, I translated a dozen or so pages of essays and other documents this particular friend needed for their Fulbright application. I did all of this work literally overnight, with almost no advanced warning.

The friend didn’t think to offer me any money or anything else for my work, but when they did, in fact, get the Fulbright, they suddenly popped up again to ask for free English lessons.

Since I haven’t heard word one from them since then, I assume they and their family stayed in the States.

What happened to the film I had been helping them make for several years is for me to wonder alone about, too.

This is a lesson I should have learned the hard way when A.S. and I held what proved to be a truly savage and unpleasant “solidarity evening” for our old friend the artist B. in 2008 after he was deported from Brexitland, where he had applied, quite sincerely and on impeccable legal grounds, for asylum as a gay man whose life was threatened in his home country.

All three of us were roundly denouced by the rather odd audience in attendance at the erstwhile artists squat Pushkinskaya 10 (now a municipally subsidized arts center) for advocating the international human rights approach to asylum seeking.

The thing to do, we were told in no uncertain terms, was to trick your way into the promised land of your choice by hook or by crook, not to openly apply for asylum and get mixed up with the allegedly politically dodgy types (i.e., anarchists and other No Borders activists) who support asylum seekers in other countries.

Meanwhile, my wife’s cousin M., who up until a few months ago showed no interest in their late grandfather and his Jewishness, has suddenly decided to make Aliyah. The only problem is that his cousin, my wife, is the only living member of the family who knows anything about their grandfather, his Jewishness, and Jewishness in general, and who has kept anything she could pertaining to her grandfather’s life, because she loved him, and because she finds her fascinating multi-ethnic family’s history fascinating.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that politics in Israel has been badly skewed  to the hard right by the huge influx of “Russian Jews” who emotionally, religiously, philosophically, and technically speaking had about as much business making Aliyah as I, a third-generation Scandinavian American, would have.

Naturally, since they have no real business being there or, rather, since they know they fudged their way into the country, they are even more resentful of the Palestinians, the natives brutally shunted aside to make room for their illegitimate millions.

This has been borne out by Likud’s strangehold on power in alliance with Avgidor Lieberman and the other radical right politicians heavily supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The only way out of this impasse is to declare Zionism a “triumphant failure” that did the job it set out to do when circumstances for Jews in the world were desperate. Now that they are much less desperate, Zionism, like “communism” in its own time, can phase itself out, giving way to a single Israeli-Palestinian state where everyone would learn Arabic and Hebrew at school, and to which anyone in the world would be eligible to immigrate if they chose to do it.

Of course, it would be a big mess, but it would also be a lot more fun than the current US tax payer-subsidized disgrace in Israel-Palestine.

But what to do about the alleged right of Russians to immigrate anywhere they choose by any means necessary when, in their majority, they themselves refuse to acknowledge the same rights for non-Russians? Spend enough time in these parts and you will realize that really large numbers of Russians do think quite sincerely and distressingly that Muslim, Asian, and African riffraff should not be allowed to live in their precious spiritual homelands of North America, Western Europe, and Israel, and certainly not in their beloved-and-hated Motherland itself.

I have no cheeky pie-in-the-sky solution to this racist silliness. I do know, though, that it had something to do (minus the racism) with why I lost a real friend. {TRR}