Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty

Alan Dershowitz, a pro-torture plagiarist who has inexplicably managed to find employment at Harvard Law School, has written an embarrassingly incompetent Op-Ed at the Huffington Post. In it, he accuses the Department of Political Science at Brooklyn College of having an ‘Israel problem’ because it has sponsored, and thereby, according to Dershowitz, endorsed the contents of, a panel discussion featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti on the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement. Throughout this screed, Dershowitz reveals the anti-intellectual dishonesty so characteristic of Brooklyn College’s worst alumnus.

Consider:

The president of Brooklyn College claims that this co-sponsorship does not constitute an endorsement by the college and that this is an issue of freedom of speech and academic freedom. But when a department of a university officially co-sponsors and endorses an event advocating DBS against Israel, and refuses to co-sponsor and endorse an event opposing such DBS, that does constitute an official endorsement. Freedom of speech, and academic freedom require equal access to both sides of a controversy, not official sponsorship and endorsement of one side over the other. The heavy thumb of an academic department should not be placed on the scale, if the marketplace of ideas is to remain equally accessible to all sides of a controversy.

For a Harvard Law professor, Dershowitz has a poor understanding of freedom of speech and academic freedom; he also cannot construct a coherent argument.

If a department sponsors an event featuring a speaker committed to thesis X, it is merely committed to hosting the speaker and providing the speaker a forum in which to air her views. Those views might be contested by those attending the talk, thus engendering a discussion space where they might even be refuted.  This provision of a forum to the speaker is all that is required to show support for academic freedom; it does not require the department to then seek out a speaker committed to the thesis Not-X. Were another student organization to organize an event featuring a speaker committed to Not-X, the department could evaluate that request for sponsorship separately.

There are many more quotes that illustrate Dershowitz’s poor grasp of the concepts central to his claim. (He is, of course, deliberately oblivious to how his advocacy of censorship is inimical to freedom of speech and academic freedom.)For now, I want to address another claim that he makes, one which he desperately hopes will serve to obfuscate the issue: does the sponsorship of such an event create a hostile atmosphere for  ‘pro-Israel’ students and for faculty? Only if those students and faculty imagine the discussion of political claims and counterclaims creates a hostile atmosphere. If they do feel so then their problem is not with the particular thesis being presented but with the very idea of the open discussion of uncomfortable topics. That’s a problem the department of Political Science cannot be held responsible for. If every academic department were to stop sponsoring events for fear that someone, somewhere, is likely to be offended, that their students would somehow think that the department was officially endorsing the views expressed therein, then there would be no discussion on campus at all.

But that is what Dershowitz wants: an end to all discussion, to be replaced by the rote recitation and memorization of a party line written up by him.

Note: I have posted on the BDS event at Brooklyn College before; please do read that post and write in with your expressions of support. The Dershowitz-sponsored bullying is now in full effect.

John Donne’s Paradoxes and Problems

A short while ago, I provided, here, excerpts from Aristotle’s Problems; in particular, I quoted two questions that Aristotle raises about alcohol and sex. Then,  I wanted to showcase the colorful framing of the question and the answer; the latter was made especially interesting because of the serious spirit of inquiry visible in it, one which, even if it seems to have gone off-mark, still impresses because of its earnestness.

Today, in the same spirit, I want to quote from John Donne‘s ‘Paradoxes and Problemes‘. The titles of these should indicate the mood in which they were written.

First, the Paradoxes:

I. A Defence of Women’s Inconstancy.
II. That Women ought to Paint.
III. That by Discord things increase.
IV. That Good is more common than Euill.
V. That all things kill themselues.
VI. That it is possible to find some vertue in some Women.
VII. That Old men are more fantastike than Young.
VIII. That Nature is our worst guide.
IX. That only Cowards dare die.
X. That a Wise man is known by much laughing.
XI. That the gifts of the Body are better than those of the Minde.

Then, the Problemes:

I. Why haue Bastards best Fortunes?
II. Why Puritans make long Sermons?
III. Why did the Diuell reserue Iesuites till the latter Dayes?
IV. Why is there more Variety of Greene, than of any other Colour?
V. Why doe Young Lay-men so much study Diuinity?
VI. Why hath the Common Opinion afforded Women Soules?
VII. Why are the Fairest falsest?
VIII. Why Venus Starre only doth cast a shadow?
IX. Why is Venus Starre Multinominous, called both Hesperus and Vesper?
X. Why are new officers least oppressing?

The online edition lists only the first ten of these; my copy of John Donne: Poetry and Prose (Modern Library Edition, Random House, 1967) includes an additional two, numbered XI (Why doth the Poxe soe much affect to undermine the Nose?) and XVI (Why are Courtiers sooner Atheists than Men of other Conditions?).

As a sample of Donne’s answers to the Problemes, here is his response to Probleme I, one that I’m sure has perplexed many over the years:

Is Nature (which is lawes patterne) hauing denied women Constancy to one, hath prouided them with cunning to allure many, and so Bastards de iure should haue better wits and experience. But besides that by experience wee see many fooles amongst them; we should take from them one of their chiefest helpes to preferment, and we should deny them to be fooles; and (that which is onely left) that Women chuse worthier men than their husbands is false de facto, either then it must be that the Church hauing remoued them from all place in the publike seruice of God, they haue better meanes than others to bee wicked, and so fortunate: Or else because the two greatest powers in this world, the Diuell and Princes concurre to their greatnesse; the one giuing bastardye, the other legitimation: As nature frames and conserues great bodies of Contraries. Or the cause is, because they abound most at Court, which is the forge where fortunes are made; or at least the shop where they be sold.

American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and the ‘American Gothic’ Style

The opening credits/titles for season 1 of American Horror Story are very creepy; in their visual ‘style’ they resemble those of season 3 of The Walking Dead. Let’s call this style ‘American Gothic’; what makes it work?

The central motif in ‘American Gothic’–at least in the two sequences cited above–is the decay of the familiar: inevitable, persistent,  insidious, ever-present and perhaps most frighteningly, contagious. In the case of American Horror Story the haunted house is so because of the ghosts that live in it, carrying around their violent pasts, impinging on and infecting the present. In the case of The Walking Dead, the decay motif is especially straightforward: this is what is left of the world we once knew, this is what awaits us. In both cases, the title sequences  remind us that true horror lies in that which is most immediately at hand, that the most proximal bears the capacity to contain the utterly unfamiliar; that is what makes it frightening. Novelty, because of its distance from us, can be comforting; the familiar is not so easily dismissed. Its decline is more frightening because it cuts a little closer.

The imagery of the ‘American Gothic’ style forces us to confront a world that lives among us even though it has passed away. It makes us reckon too, with the dissolution that lies within us: we are headed for death, our decline is inevitable. American Horror Story relies on old photo albums, household objects, nooks and crannies, and lab jars for preserving biological artifacts. (This last item taps into a straightforward source of childhood nightmares; no one is left unaffected by their visit to the samples room of a biology or pathology lab.) In The Walking Dead the decay of the world is infected by the melancholia of days gone by, of a kind of life no longer lived. It evokes terrifying dreams of deserted landscapes we found ourselves in, lost and alone; the cry of the disconsolate child is almost at hand. What makes this nightmare complete is the once known world is now strange; we see see traces of the past even as we realize it is gone forever. In American Horror Story the world is as it should be, peopled and populated by the living, but forced to reckon with those whose time is not yet up. Their remains intrude into day to day life, their actions live on beyond their first commission. The photos of children add a layer of menace to the intrusion of the pathological and horrifying into the mundane, in asking us to consider the possibility that children are monsters in the making.

But perhaps most fundamentally, the specific imagery of the style taps into a truth that can only be postponed but that must be faced up to eventually: that everything we know and love will no longer be. That relentless fact, always visible out of the corner of our eyes, standing in the wings of our mental stages, ready to wrap us in its clammy embrace is what makes ‘American Gothic’ effective.

Note: I’ve just found out that the American Horror Story and The Walking Dead title sequences are directed by the same person: Kyle Cooper.

Time Again to Support Academic Freedom

This morning, I received the following email from the Brooklyn College President, Karen Gould:

Dear students, faculty, and staff,

Each semester, student clubs, academic departments, and other groups on our campus host events and invite speakers on a broad range of topics. At times, the issues discussed may be challenging and the points of view expressed may be controversial.

Next week, Students for Justice in Palestine is hosting two speakers who will discuss their views on the BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The event is co-sponsored by several campus and community organizations, including the political science department.

As an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree. As your president, I consistently have demonstrated my commitment to these principles so that our college community may consider complex issues and points of view across the political and cultural spectrum.

Unfortunately, some may believe that our steadfast commitment to free speech signals an institutional endorsement of a particular point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views. We do, however, uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate. We also encourage our students and faculty to explore these issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the sole source of information or basis for consideration.

In addition, as I have said on several occasions, our college community values mutual respect and civil discourse. We ask all students, faculty, staff, and guests on our campus to conduct themselves accordingly so that Brooklyn College continues to be a learning environment where all may discuss and debate issues of importance to our world.

Sincerely,

Karen L. Gould
President

A little while later, I saw Corey Robin post the following as his status update on Facebook:

URGENT: Hi everyone. I need you all to stop what you’re doing and make a phone call or write an email to the administration of Brooklyn College. A few weeks ago, my department (political science) voted to co-sponsor a panel discussion, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, on the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel. In the last week, we’ve gotten a lot of pressure and pushback from the media, students, alumni, and now Alan Dershowitz (who’s been trying to track down our chair to “talk” to him). So far, the administration has held firm, but the pressure is only building and they are starting to ask us whether we endorse these views or are merely seeking to air them (to which we responded: “Was the Brooklyn College administration endorsing the pro-torture and pro-Israel views of Alan Dershowitz when it decided to award him an honorary degree?”) Anyway, I need you guys now to send an email or make a phone call encouraging the administration to stand by the department and to stand for the principle that a university should be a place for the airing of views, ESPECIALLY views that are heterodox and that challenge the dominant assumptions of society. Please contact: President Karen Gould (718.951.5671; klgould@brooklyn.cuny.edu); Provost William Tramontano (718.951.5864; tramontano@brooklyn.cuny.edu); and Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeremy Thompson (718.951.5882; JeremyThompson@brooklyn.cuny.edu. Please be polite and respectful, but please be firm on the principle. Right now, they’re only hearing from one side, so it’s imperative they hear from many others.

Please join us in encouraging Brooklyn College to hold the line against those–especially bullies like Alan Dershowitz–who would stifle the open exchange of views on campus. (Links added above.)

Olympic Lifting: The Power and the Glory

Olympic weightlifting might just be the sexiest sport there is, a near-perfect blend of strength, agility, complexity and grace that if done right, brings the lifter face to face with an acute combination of the strong and the beautiful.  When an Olympic lift comes off, body and mind come together.

An Olympic lift–the clean and jerk, and the snatch–is not a simple lift in the original sense of ‘simple’. It is not one thing. It is complex–and complex things, as Aristotle told us, require analysis into their constituents; it has many parts and all its individual components need to be drilled extensively. The barbell and PVC drills that precede an Olympic lifting session then, are tedious but essential. They are tiring. (Many is the time when my shoulders have ached from just the pre-lifting drills.) In the case of the snatch: the high scarecrow pull, the muscle snatch, the drop under; and then incredibly enough, you combine them into, hopefully, one indivisible movement, and realize how they come together. At lighter weights the drill works; all is well in God’s world. Then, despair, for at heavier weights the lift starts to break down. Here is where grace under pressure is required, a struggle to fight, to remember the drill, to maintain fidelity to form.

Coaching tips for Olympic lifts can thus attain shadings of both the poetic and the everyday. Consider the question of how you should have your knees and hips bent for the ‘jumping position’ as you move into the ‘hip-opening’ position. Well, how would you flex them if you wanted to reach up and touch the ceiling? Think of that position, that flex, that partial squat, poised to head upwards, which every kid, every human perhaps, knows instinctively.  That’s how you want to be when you are in the hang position. Or you will hear Olympic lifting described as ‘jumping with barbells.’ Think about it:  ‘jumping with barbells.’ Would you ever have imagined weightlifting described in those terms? Once you connect that dynamic motion with moving weight, which ordinarily conjured up visions of slow grinding movements, you begin to glimpse the heart and soul of Olympic lifting.

To do well in Olympic lifting is to overcome your sense of disbelief at the sheer unlikeliness of it all: How is that motion possible? Is it really possible to throw that barbell over your head? Of the two Olympic lifts, the snatch is especially improbable: How does the barbell unfurl like that over your head even as you seem to jump up and then down under it? But it can happen; if you pay attention and don’t let frustration get the better of you. And that is where paying attention to the component movements is crucial–they are what make the lift possible–they are what enable the overcoming of the sheer physical improbability of it all.

But the true beauty of the Olympic lift is to realize that this is a strength movement that requires you to have the grace and balance of a ballet dancer, the explosive muscle recruitment and deployment of a sprinter and the strength of a…weightlifter. Because you must concentrate on the lift and its components, you can teach yourself the vital skill of zoning in on a task at hand, an act of concentration and living in the moment that if cultivated, transfers well to life off the lifting platform. And because many attempts at lifts will not come off you will learn patience.

So in learning an Olympic lift you do more than train your body, you train your mind too. And how useful is that?

Wanted: Moar Philosophers in Bollywood

A few days ago, a delightful oddity began making the rounds: a clip of Bertrand Russell in a Bollywood movie.  The background for this clip is straightforward even if improbable:

The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause….So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

The actual conversation between Russell and Rajendra Kumar is quite stilted and staged but still worth a gander nevertheless. Having now witnessed such an encounter though, one’s mind turns quite naturally to the endless opportunities for philosophy-meets-Bollywood, not all of which require the philosophers concerned to just play themselves.

Here are a couple of tentative suggestions:

1. Foucault in Aakrosh: Here, Foucault plays the part of a French expat philosophy professor, now settled in India after originally travelling there as a hippie undergraduate. He has returned time and again to the strange land he has fallen in love with, and slowly come to empathize with the lot of the landless, brutalized, peasant oppressed by feudal landlords. He sees in that sphere of power politics, a visible demonstration of his writings. As Bhaskar Kulkarni the lawyer, struggles to understand why his client Lahanya Bhikhu is speechless, Foucault comes to his aid, helping Kulkarni to understand how the relentless application of power, exerted in multimodal forms upon the body and mind of Lahanya and his family have reached their logical summum bonum: the peasant, having reacted through and via the one visible outlet of power i.e., an act of ‘protective’ violence upon his wife, is now spent and unable to communicate meaningfully. Armed with this knowledge Kulkarni is able to modulate his relationship with Bhikhu, and more importantly, by distributing Foucauldian pamphlets among Bhikhu’s fellow peasants, spark an uprising. At the movie’s end, the peasants gather for a group shaving of their heads in honor of Foucault.

2. Martha Nussbaum in a yet to be made movie: Nussbaum is an American philosopher married to an Indian economist who has returned to his homeland to dabble in politics. Nussbaum plunges into Indian life, naturalizes, and joins in. Soon, this dabbling turns serious, and before she knows it, our heroine is running for parliament on a pro-woman, pro-flourishing platform. She comes under attack from Hindu nationalists, who dismiss her as a a rabble-rousing ignorant, Hinduism-hating foreigner. Nussbaum, however, meets them at their own game, learning Sanskrit, mastering Hindu scriptures and defusing her opponents via a series of brilliant written exegeses and public debates. Her marriage does not last, but Nussbaum does not return to the US, choosing instead to make India her new home, now a true daughter of the soil.

Whitewater Rafting on the Cheat River: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

In May 1990, (more precisely, during the Memorial Day weekend) I went whitewater rafting on the Cheat River in West Virginia. A fellow graduate student talked me into joining a group expedition that went every Memorial Day; it was run by a husband and wife pair and was described in suspiciously glowing terms. I had never whitewater rafted before; indeed, I had never set foot in a raft before. Sporting an attitude that has gotten me into trouble more than once–incorrigible curiosity–I decided to play along. I do not know why I thought this might be a good idea: I am a decent swimmer but not an excellent one; I am terrified of drowning; and did I mention I had never rafted before? More to the point, the Cheat features Grade IV and Grade V rapids. More on that below.

As we drove down to West Virginia from New Jersey, we encountered much rain along the way, and indeed, it was still raining when we pulled into camp early in the morning of our intended river run–after a long, tiring drive through the night. A quick breakfast later, we were river-bound, heading for outfitting and orientation.

My first look at the river was enough to induce a symphonic response from my now chattering knees: it was in flood (six feet over), a brown, roiling mass of water, churning and frothing through its broad channel, idly tossing about the odd tree-trunk and swirling over what appeared to be barely visible rocks. We were going to stick a flimsy raft on that matchstick production factory? Why wasn’t this illegal? I approached our river-running guide with some trepidation and asked him if we would be rafting with the river in such spate. My guide nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, yeah, its goin’ to be a wild ride out theah.’ (He might have preceded this statement with a Clay Davis-esque ‘sheeeeit’ but my memory fails me now.)

That piece of reassurance provided, I changed and got into the raft.  I was a coward all right, but I was even more scared about backing out in company. Our rafting got off to a decent start; the first two rapids were a bit wild, but not too bad. We then encountered the aptly name ‘Decision’ rapids where the weak-willed are given another chance to back out. I declined withdrawal. I was still too scared to back out.

Soon thereafter, I received my first dunking in the river. Our raft hit a rock, flipping me neatly into the water; on cue, I swam madly for the shore, and somehow made it. Others had received a quick wash too, so at least I wasn’t alone in being subjected to this indignity. Our raft, miraculously, was not lost to the river, so sadly, we couldn’t call an end to the madness.

Things got worse from that point on. The rapids grew into monstrous proportions; the river was in flood and every one of its wild sections, was, er, wilder. I navigated each one with my stomach churning, an acute mix of nausea and trepidation, all the while wondering why grown men and women with flourishing lives potentially ahead of them would ever subject themselves to such batterings.

Then, another rock. Our raft rode up on it, tilted, and slid back. As it did so, I fell into the river, and this time, terrifyingly, I felt myself washed away, and for one gut-churning moment of sheer terror, I felt like I was in a washing machine hitting the business end of a spin cycle. Suddenly, my head popped out of the water, and I found an oar stuck in my face by my river-guide, urging me to pull myself aboard. Somehow, I did so. One of our riders had been left stranded on the rock; amazingly, after we got to shore and threw her a lifeline, she pulled herself through the raging river to the shore.

I thought we were done. Surely, after that disaster, the sane thing to do was to pack up, and head for the nearest West Virginian moonshine distillery? But no. A genuine monster, a grade V rapid, awaited. It required some ten minutes of onshore planning and strategizing before we attempted it. Once again, I considered handing in my oars and hiking to the waiting bus, and yet again, I declined.

I’m glad I have forgotten most of the details of how we made it through that watery beast. I remember walls of white water below me, on top of me, and on the sides; I remember brown water; I remember screams and I remember arms and legs that felt as if they were on fire as I dug deep and hard in order to extricate ourselves from what felt like one endless whirlpool after another. I remember too, somehow, the awestruck faces of onlookers watching from the road nearby.

Then somehow, just like that, we were through. We were still scudding along on a frothing river, but the worst was over. I lay back, my palms and wrists aching from the tight grip I had exerted on my oar. I could have wept when I heard the magic words, ‘Time for lunch!’ A post-lunch short ride on the Cheat still had to be carried out but it felt like a breeze after what we had handled before.

That evening, I swapped stories about my ride and my dunkings with my camp mates, and made light of the flip, the toss, the spin cycle. Unfortunately, someone also recounted a ghastly story of a young rafter who had drowned in the Cheat, stuck to a rock as the river pinned him there, its relentless weight preventing him from breaking free and raising his head out of the water.

The weekend over, I drove back home, glad that I had ‘done the Cheat’, glad that I hadn’t backed out of the ride, but entirely unsure that I would ever want to go whitewater rafting again. Six years later, I rafted again, on the Ganges, just  upstream from Rishikesh, and finalized my decision: I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I wasn’t a natural in the water; my amniotic fluid days were too far gone. (Something I would realize years again later, when I went scuba diving, and had to bail out.)

To all the rafters and river-runners out there: respect. I don’t know how y’all do it.