Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Freedom and venom

Steven Salaita is having his fifteen minutes of fame. Salaita is a Palestinian-American college professor whose academic field is Native American studies. Last summer he was offered a faculty position at the University of Illinois in Champaign and then had the offer withdrawn because of some sentiments he expressed on Twitter during the Israeli attack on Gaza. The university board of trustees was alerted to the tweets and decided Salaita was not a good addition to the team. The rescinding of the offer set off a firestorm of debate over academic freedom, freedom of speech and related matters, not to mention the usual mutual insults between supporters of Israel and Palestine. Salaita is now suing the university and has embarked on a speaking tour, having achieved martyr status.

I took a look at the tweets, out of curiosity. There are a lot of them. It’s clear right away where Salaita stands, with regard to Palestine and with regard to the big picture. He is pro-Palestine, anti-Israel; he also espouses an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial world view that sees this conflict as just another chapter in the long-running struggle of indigenous peoples to free themselves from corporate-sponsored imperialism.

That’s not a particularly new or unusual viewpoint; it’s well-represented in our universities. So why did the U. of I. trustees pull back? Well, consider this tweet from July 19: Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. Hmm... We begin to see what raised those trustee eyebrows.

Immediately there were the usual accusations of anti-Semitism and the usual indignant denials. It should go without saying that criticism of Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism; it is also true that people who don’t like Jews find convenient cover among Israel’s critics. You have to take a look at cases.

So I took a look. It wasn’t much fun, because it’s no fun reading hateful speech. I don’t know if it was hate speech by the definition the left uses, but it sure was hateful. Even allowing for genuine anguish as children died in Gaza, Salaita sounds a little unhinged. If Adam Lanza joined IDF he would be considered a hero by the US. Uh, OK. (Adam Lanza was the guy who killed all those school kids in Connecticut.)

Fuck you, #Israel. And while I'm at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS. You sure you didn’t miss anybody? Salaita is not shy about the f-word, in one tweet addressing a critic as “motherfucker.”

That last one shows that Salaita casts a wide net; here’s what he thinks about the U.S.’s role: The US is knee-deep into both #Israel and #ISIS, along with every other armed outfit in the Arab World. This sectarianism isn't spontaneous. Yeah, we’re behind ISIS, too.

OK, the hysterical edge aside, this is fairly standard stuff. As support for #Palestine increases, let's remember to situate our analyses in broader frameworks of class, race, and state violence. Most of what Salaita posted wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the farther reaches of the political left.

Salaita is even careful at times to make clear that he’s not mad at the Jews: I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. And a few of his tweets are downright rational: Solutions to #Israel/#Palestine are complicated? How about, "Everybody gets treated equally under the law"? Doesn't get simpler than that. Once he even conceded something astonishing: The mass suicide "Hamas" is curating in #Gaza will soon surpass the death toll at Jonestown.

But too often Salaita just misses rationality or spoils it at the last second: I don't seek community with others based on fixed identifications: race, religion, culture, etc. You're either cool or a dick. That's all. Oh, well, then. Cool or a dick? And dick is defined politically? Who the hell does this guy think his audience is? Did he think this would impress the U. of I. trustees? And at a time when pro-Palestinian protesters in Germany are shouting “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!”,” even joking that anti-Semitism is honorable is edging perilously close to the hate speech the left claims to abhor.

Look, the problem is not Salaita’s views, though that’s the narrative he’ll be peddling for the rest of his time in the spotlight. There are plenty of people with his views on American university faculties. The problem is that, in a moment of crisis when even many people who support Israel were agonizing over its actions in Gaza, Steven Salaita dashed to abandon the high moral ground and vent an all-too obvious hatred that has to call into question his ability to engage in the dispassionate rational discourse that ought to be the stock in trade of a university.

I have a number of Palestinian friends. Several of them were active on social media during the Gaza war. Their anger and anguish were evident, but I didn’t see hatred in the things they were posting and sharing. There were any number of pro-peace and pro-Palestinian groups frantically spreading news of what was going on in Gaza, but I didn’t see anything that looked to me like hatred-- until I looked at Steven Salaita’s tweets.

My Palestinian friends may well hate Israel, for all I know, but they are rational enough to know that that’s a private matter. It has no place in public debate. Salaita doesn’t know that. He is a poor mascot for free speech, since he is clearly not interested in what anybody else may have to say. It’s not his views that disqualify him; it’s the abuse.

He is, of course, free to express those views; he’s even free to indulge in the abuse. Nobody is questioning his right to send out those tweets. But the University of Illinois is not obliged to hire a man who is clearly incapable of respecting opposing views. Steven Salaita will have you believe that he is the victim of a Zionist conspiracy to silence dissent, but the truth is that he is a victim of his own intemperance.

Sam Reaves

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