Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last Tuesday, the philosophy department of Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th. (In so doing, we joined the ranks of the departments of political science and sociology, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project, Brooklyn for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace – New York Chapter, and the International Socialist Organization.)

Because I had suggested–during the ‘new business’ section of our department meeting–that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments ‘sponsoring’ supposedly ‘political’ and ‘one-sided’ events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.

Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students–even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita’s political viewpoints–a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.

Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)

As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of ‘sponsorship’ was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion  of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed ‘endorsement’ of the speakers’ opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)

Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.

We voted; the motion carried.

7 thoughts on “Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

  1. I can barely stomach the hypocrisy and your whole “freedom of speech” bullshit. The BDS thugs and the Islamic equivalent to the Hitler Youth are the worst bunch of vile bullies I’ve ever seen allowed on campus. It’s thanks to you and these thugs that people like Robert Spencer and company need bodyguards whenever they talk about the “religion of peace”. That’s if the venue they’ve chosen to speak at has weathered the threats and intimidation by your buddies in the BDS movement and the “religion of peace”.

    Even the terrorists invited by these fascists don’t need bodyguards. Why do you think that is?

    “Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds”

    Un-Frigging-Believable. As I mentioned above. The brownshirts in Nazi Germany would be proud of the job Liberals and Muslims have done when it comes to shutting down via threats and intimidation of any criticism of Islam.


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  2. Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

    More than a year ago, Brooklyn College made news because its department of political science sponsored what amounted to a rally for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. So faculty members there have had a long time to reflect on the question of whether academic departments should sponsor anti-Israel activism. The philosophy department of Brooklyn College, presumably using the tools acquired in the course of many years of philosophic training and practice, recently delivered an answer: absolutely!

    Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at BC, has described the arguments that won over his colleagues. First, the event would be good for students. They’d get to hear a “debate” about academic freedom and other issues raised by the Salaita case. Salaita, after all, did not have the stage to himself, but shared it “with a law professor” and a moderator, a “political theorist” (who also teaches Constitutional Law).”

    Chopra does not mention that the “law professor” in question, Katherine Franke, is a boycott advocate, a leader in the effort to reinstate Salaita, and an adviser to Salaita’s legal team. The political theorist and “moderator,” Corey Robin, has “turned his blog into a Salaita war room.” One Salaita advocate adds that “we’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments.” That advocate’s name, by the way, is Katherine Franke. I am sure the debate over who loved whom more got heated.
    Say what you want about Students for Justice in Palestine. At least they forthrightly admitted that students were being invited to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.” It’s not strange that the SJP, which is engaged in a propaganda campaign against Israel, would try to draw as many people as possible to an event that would further their delegitimization efforts. But it’s remarkable—and suggests that their department possesses not only philosophical acumen but also pedagogical creativity—that the philosophers of Brooklyn College saw SJP’s event as a great learning opportunity, worthy of support.

    Just in case his colleagues, being professional philosophers, were not floored by his first argument, Chopra made another. He “analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus.” Now I am a long way from my philosophy degree. But although I was not surprised when a professor had us read excerpts from Mein Kampf in our class on Western Civilization, I would have been surprised had I learned that he voted to sponsor a panel of neo-Nazis. Yet the philosophers voted with Chopra. Perhaps they deferred to him because—drum roll please—he began his academic career as a logician.

    In many academic free speech cases, we defend the principle and distance ourselves from the speaker. You would think that even those who believe Salaita’s speech was not grounds for withdrawing his job offer would take this stance about a man who said, in response to news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” especially in the face of evidence that this statement was not an outlier.

    But Salaita’s sponsors, including the trained philosophers of Brooklyn College, aren’t distancing themselves. They’re holding Salaita close, quite as if they like what the man has to say.

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