The good liberals I know would surely do the right thing if zealots began burning young girls as witches in Massachusetts, for example, or if the government said, in a time of fear and threat, “We’re rounding up all Japanese-Americans, and placing them in prison camps.” I’m sure all the liberals—including undoubtedly Chairman Chris Kennedy and Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois—cheered wildly and without any sense of irony watching the movie “Spartacus” as every slave who’d been lined up on the field stepped forward in solidarity and said, “I am Spartacus,” and in “Point of Order” when the courageous Joe Walsh stood up to the bullying Joe McCarthy, and in a voice breaking with emotion uttered the famous line, “Have you no shame, Senator? At long last, have you no shame?” If only we’d lived in that more perfect time.
It’s pretty easy to imagine being a hero generations gone by—we’re all Abolitionists and Freedom Fighters and Suffragettes now, we’re all heroes in retrospect—but that settles nothing for today: several state legislatures want teachers to compile lists of students with questionable immigration status; several people are being interrogated, persecuted, and jailed for giving money or medical supplies to Palestinian charities disapproved of by the State Department; citizens are legally barred by the US government from free travel to a single country in the world, that terrifying island ninety miles from Miami.
And right now Professor Steven Salaita is being demonized and pilloried and denied a position he had been contracted for at the University of Illinois because of comments he made on Twitter criticizing Israel’s aggressive assault on the people of Gaza. His comments were angry and pointed, but they were Where is the outrage?
Oh, but these things are quite complicated and so very controversial that it’s hard to know what to do now—it was all so obvious and a little too easy back then. I mean McCarthy’s name itself was a dead giveaway: McCarthy/McCarthyism…who couldn’t see that shit coming a mile away?
There is no other explanation for why Steven Salaita is being singled beyond his criticism of Israel. And criticism of Israel is being conflated with anti-Semitism—as usual. Of course when free speech and unpopular ideas are under attack, the perpetrators always insist—as Joe McCarthy did—that they are acting in the cause of freedom—Wise asserted that “A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.” Academic freedom is a “bedrock principle” for the university, she wrote as she assaulted that principle head-on.
Christopher Kennedy expressed strong support for Wise and, of course, for academic freedom. He then explicitly called for professors to be evaluated based on “civility”—presumably starting now. The Board of Trustees issued a statement saying that “As a nation, we are only as strong as the next generation of participants in the public sphere. The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi-cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” Since Professor Salaita is the first professor to be judged by his Twitter posts, I can imagine a new Vice-Chancellor (U of I has a plethora of those) for Civility on Social Media, who will be busy judging the attitudes of faculty and developing a CQ—Civility Quotient. I doubt that Kennedy would rank very high if we included his investments, dealings, and business practices.
This is from John K. Wilson, author of numerous books and essays about academic freedom: “Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being ‘disrespectful’ is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but ‘viewpoints themselves’ must be protected from any disrespectful words.”
“I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all ‘viewpoints’ are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.”