Dang it! Just as I saw an opening for my question to Cary Nelson about his support of the unhiring of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois, the night was over. I guess I could have hung around for the reception afterwards and tried to talk to him, but it was getting late and I felt like it would have looked like I was confronting the guy over juice and cookies.
Oh well. I guess I’ll ask it here and see what happens. But first a recap:
Cary Nelson came to campus last night to give a talk, “Bait and Switch: The Purpose of the Movement to Boycott Israel,” which was about his take on the efforts of some academic organizations to boycott, financially divest, and otherwise sanction Israel– the “BDS” movement. The crowd was mostly a friendly group, though there was a “boycott Israel” contingent up front. I snapped this picture that pretty much captured the spirit of the protest:
That woman stood there quietly for almost the whole 45 minutes or so Nelson talked. Then she asked the first question during the Q&A (though it wasn’t really a question so much as it was a sort of disjointed rant) and she left. But I digress.
Nelson started by saying that he was going to not stoop to emotional arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he then outlined in broad terms his position (in short, a two state solution where the Israelis are going to have to give up on some settlements and territory, where there is international support to the Palestinians since people who are making decent livings are a whole lot less motivated to bomb people, etc.) before moving to what he thought was wrong specifically with BDS. Though as Nelson went on, he did get more emotionally caught up, his language became a bit less disciplined, and a lot of his criticism was pointed very specifically at two of the more active/outspoken academics in favor of BDS, Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. At one point he said “I would never say this in print, but I think [Judith] Butler is a lunatic.”
Still, Nelson’s overall take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems pretty reasonable and pragmatic to me, and he was persuasive about the problems with BDS. Though to be fair, I haven’t studied the BDS position and I certainly haven’t studied the specifics of the Butler et al side of the argument. It would have been a different event, but it would have been interesting if there was someone there representing the BDS folks so this was more of a debate. And while I haven’t always agreed with Butler, I don’t think it helps Nelson’s credibility to describe her as a lunatic.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very Milquetoast (“can’t we all just get along?”) and I have a enough imagination to have sympathies with both the Israelis and Palestinians in the region. But I’m not comfortable going a whole lot further than that because I don’t have a cultural/social/ethnic/religious dog in this fight (so to speak) as white agnostic on a good day/atheist on a bad day American of European descent, and also because this has become an incredibly polarizing “third rail” among academics. I have friends and colleagues around the country who feel very strongly one way or the other on BDS, and I’d just as soon not alienate and/or piss off either group.
Anyway, the question and answer time came and Nelson was more than game for some conflict and tough questions. He seemed to be encouraging it in a way I recognize among academics (including myself), basically saying “hey, let’s have an argument, it’ll be fun!” And just when I saw an opening to raise my hand, it was done. Dang it.
So if I could have asked a question, it would have been something like this:
“Just to change the topic a bit, I want to ask you about your stance on the unhiring of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois. Because I have to tell you, given what you’ve said and demonstrated here about the importance of engaging and debating people who hold opposing views like the folks down front who are in the “boycott Israel” camp, and also given what you’ve said in the past about academic freedom, I have to say your strong support for the Illinois administration’s move to stop Salaita from being hired into a tenured position seem strange. You’re clearly encouraging free and open debate here on the question of BDS, but not when it comes to hiring faculty with different views.
“So I guess this prompts for me several questions:
- “You have said before that if Salaita had sent his various offensive tweets after he had been hired into his tenured position, then he would have kept his job because he would have been exercising his right as a tenured professor to academic free speech. Let’s set aside the question of whether or not Salaita was actually hired or not because I think that’s something the courts are ultimately going to decide. What is the “magic” about the tenure switch? What is it where one minute, anything a non-tenured academic says can be held against them, but the next minute, once the tenure switch is flicked, anything goes?
- “Are there any logical limits to academic free speech? That is, is there anything a tenured professor might say that could cause them his or her job?
- “Shouldn’t non-tenured members of the academic community be afforded at least some level of protection? After all, non-tenure-track faculty are steadily increasing in numbers and it seems problematic to me that we don’t extend any sort of academic free speech to them.
- “What’s the role of things like social media and other non-official channels and academic free speech? I’m personally very concerned about this because I have a pretty extensive presence online (this blog, my own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and I think it’d be very problematic if something I wrote in one of these “unofficial” spaces was used against me in my job. As an academic, am I not allowed the chance to express myself on Twitter without it potentially coming back to haunt me in my day job?”
I’m not expecting Nelson to answer any of these questions, but hey, who knows? Maybe someone else who was there can offer their thoughts?