Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘free speech’ Category

The Harvard Conference on the One-State Solution in Israel/Palestine

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by David

This weekend, my alma mater, Harvard University, is hosting the “One State Conference,” subtitled: “Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution.” Lots of people are up in arms about this, it’s become something of a controversy. I don’t need to rehash the arguments here. We’ve been through them before, especially with the late Tony Judt’s controversial 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative.” I’m a big critic of the current Israeli government, I support a just two-state solution, and equal rights for all people in both states, while maintaining a Jewish character in Israel and an Arab character in Palestine.

Very briefly, a one-state solution would be a logistical nightmare that the vast majority on both sides don’t want. When Palestinians say they want a one-state solution, it means one in which they ultimately become the majority and the Jewish voice is denied. This would mean the destruction of any real Jewish autonomy in the region as we know it.

Still, I won’t sign a petition against the conference at Harvard: they have every right to debate this in an university setting. The Crimson, my old paper, basically came to the same conclusion. Apparently Harvard Students for Israel, a student group that I used to participate in, also came to this position. So did active Zionist and free speech supporter Alan Dershowitz. That’s all good. I support the principle of open inquiry and academic freedom. Actually, an academic setting is perfectly appropriate, as the one-state solution is purely academic – nobody on the ground actually wants it and it will not happen in our lifetime.

 But I think something needs to be said about even the academic support of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it’s morally consistent to support the one-state solution, but only if you really support a “no-state” solution, that is, if you believe in a universal, one-world government, maybe divided into loose geographic units. And some, on the far left, claim that is their position. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, their position is best summarized this way:

Ethnic nationalism is bad, and all ethnic nation-states should cease to exist…um… (awkward pause)… starting with Israel.

This “Israel-first” position (as in, the first to get axed), under the pretense of leftist internationalism, is frankly antisemitic, in effect if not in intent, as Larry Summers would have it, and should be described as such. It is a position that I think many of my colleagues on the left take, though they probably don’t think of it in these terms. But they should. And that’s all that really needs to be said about the matter.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 2, 2012 at 14:35

Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn on Academic Freedom

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by Julian 

Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship.  As he explained,

It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas  (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.

While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.

How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems.  Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.

By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.

Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had

always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.

From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost? 

American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?

Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.

Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom.  The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation.  If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,

I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.

Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history.  Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.

Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.  Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.

Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 10, 2012 at 12:54

The Kushner Affair and Academic Freedom

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by Nemo

Most observers seem to agree that the CUNY Board of Trustees made a boneheaded move by vetoing an honorary degree that the faculty and administration of John Jay College had planned to award to the playwright Tony Kushner. When you have people like Jeffrey Goldberg and Ed Koch attacking you for going too far with your “pro-Israel” activism, you know you probably went overboard. In fact, the trustees themselves seem to have realized the error in their ways, since they have now decided to overturn their previous decision.

Tony Kushner

Now, there were many reasons to criticize the board’s initial move to deny Kushner the degree. These include its unprecedented heavy-handedness (this was the first time that the board had overruled a motion for an honorary degree), its gross mischaracterization of Kushner’s views on Israel, and the obvious attempt it represented to narrow the range of acceptable debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even some of Kushner’s harshest critics believed that the vote to deny the honorary degree was patently unfair and gave Zionism a bad name. This is to their credit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Julian Nemeth

May 10, 2011 at 15:31

A Republican from 50 Years ago

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By Wiz

I’m assigning my students Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese this week. For the non-historians in our audience, Roll, Jordan, Roll is a classic interpretation of the Old South, which, among other things, did much to introduce the theory of Antonio Gramsci into American intellectual circles.

Its a flawed, but still fantastic, book, with important things to say about paternalism, slave religion, and master-slave relationships. But as part of the background, I want to give the students a sense of where Genovese himself was coming from. So I’m planning to lecture just a bit on Genovese’s personal history, including the controversy around his statements at the Rutger’s teach-in in 1965.

In 1965, at one of the first teach-ins held against the Vietnam War, Genovese famously remarked that “I am a Marxist and a Socialist. Therefore, unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.”

His statement became an issue in that year’s New Jersey gubernatorial race. The Republican, Wayne Dumont, argued that Genovese should be fired from his state job, while the Democrat Richard Hughes defended academic freedom. Hughes won the race, Genovese kept his job, and all was well (except of course, for the Vietnamese). Eventually, Genovese became a right-winger and a Catholic.

Anyways… so I was researching the issue for my lecture and I came upon this article from Time magazine in 1965 reporting on the controversy.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Read this description of the political program of the Republican, Dumont:

Both agreed that New Jersey’s most pressing problem, a chronic shortage of revenue, could be solved only by new taxes. (New Jersey and Nebraska are the only two states in the Union that do not levy statewide taxes on income or retail sales.) Nor did the candidates electrify the populace with pleas for purer water, cleaner air, faster transit facilities.

Higher taxes, stronger environmental regulations, and better public transportation. This is almost literally the exact opposite of current New Jersey Republican governor, Chris Christie, who has staked his governorship on lower taxes, less regulation, and defunding public transportation.

Thought it was pretty notable. Cold War Republicans were no friends of free speech, but at least were reasonable on some other stuff. No longer.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 8, 2011 at 13:26

Posted in Academia, free speech, History & Historians

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Those Tyrannical Paranoid Chinese

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By Wiz

From the New York Times:

As China ratcheted up the pressure on Google to censor its Internet searches last year, the American Embassy sent a secret cable to Washington detailing why top Chinese leaders had become so obsessed with the Internet search company: they were Googling themselves…That cable from American diplomats was one of many made public by WikiLeaks that portray China’s leadership as nearly obsessed with the threat posed by the Internet to their grip on power

Nothing like that would ever happen here!

The AP:

LONDON (AP) — WikiLeaks struggled to stay online Friday as governments and hackers hounded the organization across the Internet, trying to deprive it of a direct line to the public.

Talking Points Memo:

The nation’s biggest defense contractors, who employ thousands of people with security clearances, are taking steps to restrict their access to Wikileaks, including one company which is blocking employees from accessing any website, including news stories, with “wikileaks” in the URL.

Columbia University:

Students of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs were warned this week not to spread the Wikileak cables online if they ever wanted a job at the State Department.


BERLIN (AP) – Online payment service provider PayPal says in a company blog it has cut off the account used by WikiLeaks to collect donations.


On Wednesday, WikiLeaks – the organization behind one of the largest diplomatic data dumps in history – was ejected from Amazon cloud-based servers, apparently under pressure from US politicians.

Update: Digby steals my thunder.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

December 4, 2010 at 13:17

Violent Foreigners Invade Ground Zero

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By Wiz

I’m normally a tolerant person, and generally welcome immigration. It’s what makes America great and all. But recently, some of you may have noticed, there have been groups of foreign radicals, zealots known as exponents of terrorism and violence who have infiltrated our shores, even showing up here in Manhattan, near the sensitive location of Ground Zero.

I’m talking, of course, about the English.

Specifically, the English Defence League, who rallied over the weekend opposed to the construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero. They’re a truly noxious group of people, who intentionally exacerbate conflicts between Islamic citizens and others.

Outside Agitators

A group of them were allowed to come to America to protest. Good for America for letting them in, we shouldn’t be blocking any ideas no matter how hateful. But think for a second if an analagous group of Muslims from some other country wanted to come to protest something in New York City. I’m sure they would have no problems getting past customs.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

September 13, 2010 at 17:42

Cordoba House Mosque and American Jews: some historical perspective

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by Weiner

Here’s one final thought on the Cordoba House mosque by Ground Zero and the American Jews of the Anti-Defamation League who oppose it.

Let’s think back to  1977. The American Nazi Party wants to hold a rally in Skokie, Illinois, home to a significant number of Jewish Holocaust survivors. People protest. The case goes to the supreme court. Guess what? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Nazis were allowed to march. Because in America, even more so than Canada, when it comes to freedom, anything goes. Even racism.

Obviously the legal details are different int the two cases. But a similar principle must be invoked.

The Cordoba House mosque is going to represent mainstream Islam and interfaith dialogue. It is the furthest thing from a neo-Nazi group. If American law protects the rights of neo-Nazis, it should also protect the rights of innocent Muslims to peaceful religious expression wherever they so choose.

From a legal perspective, there can be no debate here. From an ethical perspective, even less. The editorial board of the New York Times got it right, calling the proposed mosque a “monument to tolerance,” and I’m glad they called out the ADL in their editorial. Jews should realize that the same principle of freedom–of speech, of religion, of expression, of assembly–that allows that mosque to go up is the same one that allowed the Nazis to march in Skokie is also the same one that has allowed Jews to live in prosper–as Jews–in the United States since the country’s founding.

Written by David Weinfeld

August 4, 2010 at 14:06

Do protesters threaten free speech? (A: No, no they don’t)

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By Wiz

Karl Rove recently got interrupted at a speech in Beverly Hills by Code Pink. They repeatedly heckled his speech and he eventually left the stage. This, of course, is a constant threat to certain types of elite speakers. It happened to John Yoo so much that he now holds his class in secret. My personal favorite moment was back when John McCain tried to speak at the New School. He was booed so often that his best buddy President Bob Kerrey came out and berated the students, at which point someone in the crowd reminded Kerrey that someone who was a war criminal probably shouldn’t be so self-righteous.

Wendy Kaminer, in an otherwise reasonable article about how heckling is not protected free speech, starts complaining that protesters like this are violating the rights of everyone else. These protesters are “effectively restricting the rights of others — not just Rove but audience members who were interested in hearing from him.” She concludes, “The heckler’s veto limits speech.”

Now, one might say, its hardly like the American people have suffered a lack Karl Rove’s influence in the public discourse. But its the tone of Kaminer’s piece that really bothered me. There is nothing I hate more (well there probably are things…) than the “When you think about it, its really the protesters who are violating my rights” type argument.

First, a quick history lesson.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the vast majority of the American population- North and South- was vehemently opposed to the abolitionist movement. Anti-abolitionist mobs were common, as “gentlemen of property and standing” took to the streets to violently assault and even kill abolitionists and their African-American allies. Not only was the press almost unanimously hostile to abolitionists (with the exception of the black press) but so were other organs of public opinion. Universities were overwhelmingly closed to abolitionism and almost every mainstream Church distanced themselves from the movement. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was only one of many abolitionists who discovered this the hard way; in 1848 he was fired from his post as a preacher in a Newburyport Unitarian Church by, as he wrote to his mother, “the well-to-do merchants” in his congregation who disapproved of his anti-slavery activism.

Parker Pillsbury, one of Foster's Partners

In this atmosphere abolitionists had a tough time getting their message out. One who tried was Stephen S. Foster. Foster wasn’t the compromising type. Slave-owners were murderers and rapists, he declared, the federal government aided and abetted it and so it was a sin to vote or hold office. Worse of all the Northern churches apologized and defended the slave-owners. Foster discovered this on his own when he was expelled from Union Theological for his anti-slavery activity. So Foster wrote “A Brotherhood of Thieves; or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy.”But that wasn’t enough, so with some of his friends like Parker Pillsbury he took to entering church services of particularly loathsome pro-slavery ministers and denouncing the sermon, calling on the congregation to “Come-out” and attempting to give his own alternative sermon. In Portland Maine, this almost got him killed, as an angry mob beat him half to death.

Benjamin Lay

Interrupting church services was, in its own way, an anti-slavery tradition. My personal favorite abolitionist was Quaker Benjamin Lay. A four-foot tall, hunchback vegetarian, he is known for having interrupted a Quaker meeting by bursting in and plunging a sword into a Bible that he had filled with red berries, making it appear that the book was bleeding. I’ve never totally understood the symbolism, but the point is he was hard to ignore.

The take away point is that free speech and democracy work best when they are rowdy things, when there is a vigorous back and forth and when as many people as possible engage in the public discourse.

People often talk about the “marketplace of ideas.” This is a more appropriate analogy then they realize. Just like real marketplaces, we all are formally equal in our rights to free speech, but enter the marketplace with vastly different substantial power, making a mockery of that formal equality. I, for instance, do not have the same effective speech as Roger Ailes- owner of Fox News- just like Foster did not have the same effective power as the preachers he denounced.

To paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of its ruling class. A big reason for this is that powerful people have far greater access to newspapers, universities, churches, and all the other means of opinion making. To say that marginalized movements must limit themselves to the formal exercise of free speech is to ask them to acquiesce to this inequality, to accept their inferior position.

Kaminer’s argument- that rowdy students are a threat to democracy and free speech- is the exact type of argument that you might expect from someone who already has a huge megaphone and therefore assumes that all is well in the public discourse. If you don’t like Karl Rove then you can just use your column in the Atlantic Monthly to disagree with him! “If only,” people like Kaminer piously sigh, “everyone just stuck to polite reasoned debate, liberal proceduralism, etc…. we could solve our problems diplomatically.” It’s the same attitude that hates protests and student occupations and every other way that disempowered people need to use to get their voices heard.

Ask yourself, as a thought experiment, what would truly be a sign of a democratic society: one in which elites like Karl Rove have to face angry crowds who challenge him, or one in which we sheepishly sit back without questioning or confronting him?

(Now, of course, shouting at speakers is a tactic, and like any tactic can be used both by our side and by the other side, and can be misued. I’m sure you can imagine or have experienced situations when this was inappropriate. But when tea partiers did this to some affect back last summer by taking over town halls and all the liberals huffed and puffed -and made themselves look weak and whiny in the process- I have to admit I felt ashamed. Why the hell didn’t we do that during the Iraq War?)

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 2, 2010 at 00:22

Something America Does Better than Canada!

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by Wiz

You guys may have better indie rock music, health care policy, and comedians, but America has better free speech laws!

In case anyone missed it, Ann Coulter was threatened with censorship after being invited to a Canadian university. GG (Greenwald, not Grandin) has his take here.

Key quote: “For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes, will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them, and will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered.”

Agreed. The worse part about this? This is exactly, I mean exactly, what the odious Coulter wants. She gets more attention, gets to play the martyr, gets to put down Canada, and gets to act like a brave truth teller all at once.

That said, let’s not pretend the world is some reasoned academic seminar, where all opinions are calmly discussed and debated and everyone has equal time. If that were true, no one would ever have heard of Ann Coulter. Coulter (and others with her point of view) gets a megaphone that far outweighs most of ours, in no small part because she reinforces the biases of the powerful. So I’ve got no problem with students who try to counter that by shouting her down, protesting, throwing pies, etc… Free speech should be rowdy!

But the state should stay the hell out.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 25, 2010 at 18:41


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