Friday, April 08, 2005

 

NY Times comes out against academic freedom

There isn't much I can say about the horrendous NYTimes editorial yesterday that hasn't already been laid down by the good professor, Juan Cole (who encourages all to unsubscribe from the NYTimes).

The one thing I will add is that the mainstream press (such as the NYTimes), which tries to take an "objective" and detached view of the matter (as opposed to the gutter press like the NY Sun, which doesn't even pretend), continues to fall back on the "failure" of the Columbia administration to deal with the "problem" before it became a public matter involving outside pressure groups, etc. The problem with that narrative is that the existing Columbia structure for filing complaints against teachers didn't fail. IT WASN'T USED! Not a single on of the students that alleged intimidation in "Columbia Unbecoming" had gone through the regular channels of filing a complaint. It's not a situation where complaints were ignored. Where they were made to "go away." There were no complaints in the first place. The lesson learned here is that there is no need to go through the standard channels (especially if the substance of your complaint is a bit lacking) - a campaign orchestrated by outside pressure groups and the right-wing media is ultimately much more effective. I would guess that the Columbia administration thinks they saved their own asses on this one, but if others learn the same lesson, I don't think they'll be feeling quite so good about themselves.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

 

Pushing the Center

There is an article by Richard Asniof of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the opening of the new Middle East studies center at Brandeis that is very revealing about where pro-Israel lobbies/advocates are trying to push academia. The article is very praising of the Brandeis center for its "non-partisan" approach, an image that the center itself is trying its best to push forward. However, the reporter, Asinof, is very uncritical in accepting this at face value. He writes:
With its inaugural conference April 4-5, Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies will launch its quest to create a first-rate center of Middle East scholarship that avoids polemics, eschews advocacy and disavows political agendas.
However, its director, Shai Feldman, expresses (if one reads what he actually says) that there is going to be a very clear political agenda at the center:
“The center will seek to produce a discourse on the Middle East as dispassionate, objective and centrist as possible,” Feldman told JTA in a recent interview. [emphasis is mine]
It's clear that the unspoken message here is that there is going to be a conscious attempt to steer clear of any leftists (since that is the prevailing criticism of academia, especially Middle East studies). "Leftists need not apply." And as for the "centrist" nature of Brandeis, let's take a look at where that "center" is going to fall, shall we.
The inaugural conference will feature the kind of “open, high-level discussion and debate” among scholars that Feldman advocates.

One session, “Israel’s Disengagement Plan: The Internal Debate,” features Israel Harel, a former chairman of the Yesha council of Israeli settlers.

The next session, “Palestinian-Israeli Relations: The Next Steps,” features Yair Hirschfeld, one of the principal architects of the Oslo accords and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa.

As Feldman notes, Harel and Hirschfeld “agree about absolutely nothing.” But, he argues, “we should not be afraid to have students exposed to people with different ways of thinking, competing approaches and competing narratives.”
So here we have the two extremes presented: on the one hand, the extreme-right Israeli settler movement; on the other, an Israeli architect of Oslo. Thus, one might imagine, the "center" falls somewhere in between. Which would be, oh I don't know, right about where Ariel Sharon stands now.

 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

It seems that Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres are playing good cop, bad cop again. While Sharon (bad cop) is approving the expansion of settlements in the West Bank by 3,500 new homes, he is sending Peres (good cop) to Washington to ask the US to help pay for removing settlements in the Gaza Strip. What a deal for Americans! Not only do we get to pay to build settlements, we get to pay to take them down also (as well as helping to cover the costs of "compensating" the settlers who leave, I'm sure). And who could turn down those droopy puppy-dog eyes on Peres? Well, we know Bush can't say no to Sharon, so that's probably not the target. The target is probably all those State Department types (you know those wimps) who don't get along so well with the bad cop. That's where Shimon steps in and says "look guys, I'm with you... but I need this money, you see, to make sure that Sharon goes through with this Gaza plan. We need this money to make sure the settlers don't get their way."

But the settlers are getting their way.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

 

Rashid Khalidi on Academic Freedom

The transcript of Rashid Khalidi's statement below, from a teach-in on academic freedom on Monday, were made available by Democracy Now.
PROF. RASHID KHALIDI: Why are academic freedom and freedom of speech necessary? They're not necessary to defend conventional popular ideas. You don't need freedom of speech to defend ideas that everybody agrees with. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are particularly necessary for unpopular and difficult ideas, for unconventional ideas, for ideas that challenge reigning orthodoxy. Academic freedom is important, secondly, because it's necessary to push the frontiers of knowledge forward. That in turn requires protection. That in turn requires support. Pushing the boundaries, pushing at what is accepted, requires the kind of support that academic freedom gives us.

Now, that kind of support doesn't only come from universities. There are other institutions in society that sometimes give that support. I'm reminded of some of the American foundations in the 1970s and 1980s which gave their support to new and at that time radical thinking about South Africa and about apartheid and played a role which at the time was unpopular, which at the time went counter to government policy, but which was absolutely vital in breaking a false, immoral consensus that reigned in this land, the consensus that the Reagan administration had foisted on this country of constructive engagement with a racist apartheid regime in South Africa. The foundations very courageously did something in the 1970s and 1980s, something that I would suggest they're not doing in some other areas today, which in turn provided vital support for efforts to push the boundaries.

A third reason that academic freedom is necessary is because it serves to protect precisely the most vulnerable people in academia: junior faculty, people who do not have the protection of tenure. Now, I should say, as someone who happens to have tenure, that unfortunately, this is not a protection that all of those who have it use as often as they should. Tenure should be something that we value, we appreciate, should be something that spurs us to do more, should be something that spurs us to push the boundaries. But for those who don't have it, academic freedom is absolutely vital, as we heard from the last speaker. It's not a coincidence that our junior colleagues have been the ones targeted in this filthy campaign by the gutter press and by its allies out in the world.

Because of its value, in all of these spheres, it's absolutely vital to defend academic freedom. This is something that's valuable to all of us. It's valuable to students, it’s valuable to the faculty, it's valuable to society as a whole. If students were coming to be told ideas that they arrived at university with, they would be getting nothing of value here. If they were not to be challenged, if they were not to be forced to rethink the things that they come here as 18-year-olds or 22-year-olds or 25-year-olds with, what in heaven's name would be the point of the university? What would in heaven's name would be the point of teaching? We would just come here with monolithic conventional ideas, and we would leave here with the same monolithic conventional ideas. This is why academic freedom is absolutely vital. It's not just vital to us, the academics. It's vital to everybody in this society and it is something which has to be defended not just by academics, but also by students. It's too valuable to be left to politicians, and heaven knows, it's too valuable to be left to administrators.

Now, what is the current environment in which the so-called crisis at Columbia has developed? And I agree fully with one of the previous speakers, this is an utterly artificial crisis created from without the university for purposes that are, in fact, much larger than the university. The first element of this larger environment is a campaign that is nationwide in scope, against the autonomy of the universities in the broadest sense. It's a campaign taking place in state legislatures. It's a campaign taking place in the columns of newspapers. It's a campaign which argues that there must be balance in universities. It's a campaign that based on an utterly spurious argument that the universities are strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that they were strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that the medical schools and the pharmaceutical schools were challenging the stranglehold of industrial medicine, of the industrial pharmaceutical industry. Would that agriculture schools -- would that agriculture schools or business schools were challenging the reigning orthodoxies. Would that economics departments, would that engineering schools, would that schools of international affairs were vigorously challenging the reigning orthodoxies in their fields. Would -- I could go on and on and on. We should challenge these ludicrous assertions, which are permeating not just the columns of the right wing press, but which we find before important state legislatures today.

The second element in this current environment is swift boat-style attacks on individuals, who are typed and framed as out-liars by right wing political campaigns, which then are picked up by their allies and buddies and friends in the media and in the political class. We have seen this with Ward Churchill, we have seen this with our colleague Joseph Massad, we have seen it again and again and again over the past several years. Finally, we have campaigns around specific issues. I have already talked about the campaign against the liberal academy, and I have already suggested how utterly false the basis of that campaign is. We have a campaign against what are called unpatriotic faculty. Now, the last time I checked, most Americans were against this war, but by the rhetoric of those who would call the majority of Americans who are unpatriotic, those faculty members who have spoken out against this war, that war, our war, America's war in Iraq, are unpatriotic, so the majority of us are unpatriotic. And the minority that supports this policy are presumably the patriots and can say what they want about us, the majority.

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