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The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita

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In the twenty-one years I spent at Columbia University, there was always some professor or another coming under attack from the Israel lobby—starting with the famous brouhaha of Edward Said throwing a rock or two at an Israeli military watchtower near the border with Lebanon. AIPAC would have had you believe that this was not a symbolic act but an existential threat to a state armed with nuclear weapons. But no matter the intensity of the witch-hunt, I was always proud to see my employer stand up for the free speech rights of the faculty.

As such my attention has been riveted on the trials and tribulations of Steven Salaita who was unfortunate enough to be the victim of a combined assault by the Israel lobby and a university officialdom that was determined to make him pay for telling the truth, no matter how bitter that truth. Since I am very close to some tenure-track professors, I have a better handle than most on what it means to be robbed of a tenured position. Getting tenure nowadays is almost like winning the American Idol contest, so the very idea of being denied a position and thrown to the wolves (no offense meant to a member of the animal kingdom far more noble than the University of Illinois mucketymucks) struck me as a wantonly destructive act—all the more so since it was defended in Pecksniffian terms by the likes of Cary Nelson.

When I posted an excerpt from Salaita’s newly published “Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom” on my blog this week, I was struck by the sharp rise in page views. Clearly, just about everybody on the left has a feeling that in this case the IWW slogan rings as true as ever: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Everybody has a stake in the outcome of his legal action against the University of Illinois. Student activists in the BDS movement understand that his persecution was an attempt to silence a high-profile academic supporter. People on the left in general recognize that it is not just “academic freedom” that is under attack. In a period of deepening repression that includes snooping on electronic communications, a university’s firing of a tenured professor because of some controversial tweets is an omen of things to come. Finally, it is Salaita’s peers who have the greatest stake in the outcome of his legal action. If you signed a contract for a new academic position, sold your house, and resigned your prior position, what a shock it would be to receive a letter a month or so before the semester starts informing you that the contract was meaningless.

“Uncivil Rites” is both a personal and political account of what it is like to endure such a Kafkaesque fate. I was deeply moved by Salaita’s confession that his first reaction was one of shame, as if he had somehow failed his family. It reminded me of what my Trotskyist educators once told me after I joined the movement in 1967. Since they had lived through the 1930s, they understood what it meant to be jobless. They explained that for the average worker, unemployment was experienced as a personal failing. In 1930 there was no mass outpouring of protests, only a sense of resignation and a yearning for personal salvation. When no such salvation was forthcoming, the workers took to the streets.

For all of the talk about professors being a privileged elite, we should never forget that the only thing that they can rely on is their intellectual labor power. As pawns of market relations, they can be victims as well—all the more so when the visible hand of political repression enters the marketplace and tilt the scales in favor of injustice. Given the increasingly “precariat” nature of academic labor, perhaps we will see its various tiers from adjuncts at the bottom to full professors at the top come together and make a stand against corporatization that would put a smile on the face of John L. Lewis.

The tone of “Uncivil Rites” is conversational. Like all great writing, the voice of the author is paramount and Steven Salaita is a very engaging conversationalist, something I can attest to as having heard him speak at the New School during a nationwide tour. salaitauncivilPart of everyday discourse is profanity. In a bracing departure from academic cant, he lets loose with a “shit” or a “fuck” as the spirit moves him. Considering the abuse he has had to put up with by those using far more “civil” language, his formulations are appropriate to the circumstances. Indeed, new curse words would have to be coined to describe the malignant forces arrayed against him.

Among them are a trio of professors at the University of Illinois who are a disgrace to their profession, starting with Cary Nelson whose “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical” once sat upon my bookshelf. A new edition should properly be titled “Manifesto of a Tenured Ex-Radical Serving Corporate Power.” Nelson, who has led the crusade against Salaita, has the temerity to cite the testimonial of Michael Berube, who replaced him as head of the AAUP, on his website. Berube describes him there as a fearless defender of free speech. Evidently, Berube’s subsequent opinion that “Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence” was overlooked.

Nelson’s partners in academic malfeasance are Nick Burbules and Joyce Tolliver who have slandered him as an “anti-Semite”. In the chapter aptly titled “Puffery”, he describes their attack as an “impeccable example of civilized defamation”. The two are walking embodiments of liberal cant with Burbules and Tolliver writing articles and books about “globalization” and “feminism”, all the while opposing trade unions at the University of Illinois. It reminds me of the time when Judith Shapiro, the president of Barnard College and a leading feminist theorist, provoked the mostly black and Latina clerical workers to go on strike after she sought a cutback in the health insurance benefit. For such people, diversity and tolerance are very important except when it comes to outspoken Palestinian professors or lowly paid trade union members.

My favorite chapter in this eminently readable book that I devoured in one sitting is titled “Injustice: a Bull(shit) Market” (I told you that Steven Sailaita does not mince words.) It is a combination of autobiography and political analysis that reveals the author at his sardonic peak. We learn that he had trouble with authority from an early age. He spent a lot of time being suspended from school and at the time knew that “adults are full of shit.” He advises:

Children need to develop a type of literacy that allows them to articulate their natural skepticism; instead, we teach them to suppress their instinctual dissidence so that they will be prepared for the rigor and discipline of a capitalist marketplace.

Whenever Salaita was suspended, his father punished him by giving him a list of chores that would leave him sore in the evening. But instead of bowing to the school’s strictures, he remained defiant. He writes, “I would have rather mowed the lawn down to dirt than spend any time in school.”

As he grew older, he discovered that higher education can be as authoritarian as any other institution in capitalist society, even more so. With the growing corporatization of the university, the administrative staff metastasizes while the number of tenured faculty decreases. With no protection against unemployment, the adjuncts tend to bow to authority. The net effect of such an environment is to prepare students for a job in a factory or a cubicle with little to hope for except a paycheck.

In protecting the “brand name”, universities go to extreme lengths to suppress bad news—especially about sexual assault. An administrator at the U. of North Carolina tells a rape survivor, “Rape is like football, and when you look back at the game, what would you have done differently in that situation.”

Before Salaita was crucified for his tweets, he had already gotten a taste of civilized repression at Virginia Tech after writing an article for Salon in 2013 questioning the use of “support our troops” since it was a way of discouraging critical examination of US foreign policy. That article led to a feeding frenzy like the one that led to his firing. Lawrence Hincker, a Virginia Tech administrator, issued a statement that included this mealy-mouthed formulation: ““While our assistant professor may have a megaphone on salon.com, his opinions not only do not reflect institutional position, we are confident they do not remotely reflect the collective opinion of the greater university community.” Hincker made sure to identify himself as a Vietnam era Navy veteran at the bottom of the statement.

Salaita’s take on this affair is filled with Swiftian irony:

As the controversy raged, I met with Hincker, along with my department chair and dean. Hincker was in a helpful mood, assuring me that all would be well if I produced a statement clarifying my position. The chicanery of the request intimated a coalescence of corporation and university, with the state, as usual, obeying the corporations and embodying the universities. My department chair silently watched, later calling me repeatedly to confirm that I wouldn’t in fact be releasing a clarification. In these moments, persistent obedience is a virtue.

To corporations, clarity is not a virtue. They thrive on the poetics of euphemism and treat truth as the verisimilitude of focus groups and consumer spending. Ambivalence and obeisance are their greatest assets. In this world of smirking plutocracy, clarifying a controversial statement means declaiming the substance of the controversy because clarification is supposed to comfort the powerful. Clarity in reaction to controversy is capitulation to the need of power to reassure itself of permanent reign.

Keeping in mind that Steven Salaita will earn some royalties from the sale of this book, let’s make it a bestseller. He will need money to tide him over until his job is reinstated at the U. of Illinois and he receives a cool million or so for damages. Buy a copy for yourself and for your friends on the left. It is a manifesto for our time with fighting words to inspire us for the struggle ahead.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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