Alan Dershowitz: A Hypocrite Grows In Brooklyn

Alan Dershowitz has long perfected the art of throwing a toddler’s tantrum  – especially in his fulminations against the academic freedom that his fellow academics and he himself enjoys. Last year, when Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler spoke at a BDS-themed event at Brooklyn College,  our esteemed academic hygienist threw a particularly epic fit. He held his breath till he turned blue, he wailed, he screamed, he kicked and flailed, he gnashed his teeth, he threatened alternately to call mommy and papa. He demanded that the speakers be ‘balanced’ by opposing counterpoints; he insisted that inviting one speaker, without inviting his or her intellectual and political antithesis, was an act of gross intellectual dishonesty. To use a pair of particularly appropriate Australianisms, he spat the dummy and threw his toys out of the pram. (My apologies to all the little ones who do so much else that justifiably provokes affection and care from us; they are more far more interesting and diverse and I daresay, nuanced, in their personalities.)  A Harvard Law professor was rapidly transformed into something far more undignified: all unsatisfied Id, no Ego, no Superego.

Long-time observers of this torture-advocating, plagiarizing, walking embarrassment to Harvard Law School–whose batting average these days has been particularly stratospheric thanks to the diligent efforts of Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz–thought they immediately detected a certain sadness, a hurt, manifested in this spectacular display of an underdeveloped psyche. Why, oh why, hadn’t Dershowitz’s alma mater, Brooklyn College, or anyone associated with it, invited him to speak at Brooklyn College? Why this rejection of its son? Why this turning away from the door? Indeed, Dershowitz himself said as much, expressing a febrile mix of disappointment and rage in his queries into the lack of a standing invitation from the Political Science department to come speak to their students – and to allow their students to see, at first-hand, how an expensive education and an Ivy League professorship are no guarantee of even a modicum of intelligence or reasoning ability.

The Greeks–or perhaps it was someone else–might have thought the gods pay no attention to our piteous bleating about our misfortunes. But such is not the case with Brooklyn College and Dershowitz. For an invitation was extended to him by a student group–the Brooklyn College Israel Club–to speak here, and so he did this past week. His talk was sponsored by four departments–including Political Science, the department that bore the brunt of his tirades the last time, and mine, Philosophy. (I voted in favor of the sponsorship decision.)

Dershowitz spoke at Brooklyn College and talked about the need for ‘nuance’, for the need for ‘balance’ in campus discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict; he criticized departments that sponsored events like the ones that so infuriated him last year. He did so alone. His only companion on stage was an empty chair. (There is no indication of whether Dershowitz pulled a Clint Eastwood.) There were no speakers to provide ‘balance’ – like say, Norman Finkelstein, who once said that Dershowitz’s books were not good enough to be used as schmattas, rags to clean windows with.

To paraphrase Nietzsche ever so slightly, “A man far oftener appears to have a decided character from persistently following his temperament than from persistently following his [professed] principles.”

The New York State Assembly is First Amendment-Illiterate

Earlier this morning, on both my Facebook and Twitter pages, I wondered aloud

Is the Empire State particularly hostile to academic freedom? Is it particularly illiterate about the First Amendment?

The reason for this slightly despairing query? Read this and despair for free speech:

The New York State Assembly is currently considering a bill (A.8392) to prohibit colleges and universities in New York State from using State funding to support employees’ participation in academic organizations that have supported boycotts against any nation or its universities. Colleges or universities that violate this act would lose all state funding. This bill (S.6438) has already passed the State Senate, with major support from both parties.   

If you’ve been reading the news at all recently, you know this is in retaliation for the following:

The executive body of the American Studies Association (ASA), the nation’s oldest and largest association of scholars of American culture and history…endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, calling them complicit in a “multi-tiered system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights.”….

The resolution to shun Israeli academic institutions was approved unanimously by the 20-member national council, which has urged the ASA’s 5,000 members to adopt it as policy.

Unsurprisingly, the ASA resolution has sparked a great deal of commentary. For instance, Cary Nelson–former president of the American Association of University Professors–wrote a critical response, and Corey Robin has written a series of posts defending it and the associated BDS movement.

So far, so good: academics make some speech, other academics respond with more speech. But then, along comes this bill. It’s problematic in several ways, as Michelle Goldberg points out:

But if the ASA boycott might violate academic freedom, the anti-boycott law definitely does. This is the state punishing scholars for taking a political stance. It’s almost certainly unconstitutional. As Dima Khalidi of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Solidarity Legal Support writes, “Courts have been very clear that the denial of funding, where motivated by a desire to suppress speech, is prohibited by the First Amendment.”

And it is likely to be counterproductive for very interesting reasons:

Beyond the First Amendment, the bill raises another, fascinating legal issue. It includes three exceptions: boycotting a country is OK when it’s designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, when the boycott is connected to a labor dispute, or “for the purpose of protesting unlawful discriminatory practices as determined by the laws, rules or regulations of this state.” Israel, of course, engages in a number of discriminatory practices towards the Palestinians that wouldn’t pass muster with New York civil rights law. That’s why it’s being boycotted in the first place! So while the law should be tossed in its entirety, a lawsuit focused just on the third point could be immensely clarifying, essentially putting the reality of the Occupation on trial. Were that to happen, New York State would have ended up doing the BDS movement a great favor.

Who would have standing to file a lawsuit challenging the law on the grounds Goldberg suggests? As an example, Corey Robin notes:

Any faculty member at CUNY who is denied travel money to the ASA — on the grounds that it is an organization that boycotts.

A First Amendment challenge to this bill is not going to be hard to make, and what is more, no judge that has read the US Constitution should let this bill stand.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

State legislature bills are not drafted by idiots; their drafting committees almost certainly include lawyers who presumably have taken the obligatory class on the US Constitution that is required of all first-year law students. Those drafters, and the bill’s supporters in the legislative houses, must know such a bill will not pass constitutional muster. Why then, do they attempt to pass such legislation?

The answer is dispiriting. To posture, to preen and strut and show off your allegiance to a political cause–not free speech!–, to rally the faithful, to pander to those who would care little for constitutional niceties that get in the way of their political objectives.

Seeking to impress such a constituency strikes me as a depressingly low political benchmark to set for oneself.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

BDS at Brooklyn College: A Sobering ‘Success’ of Sorts

All is well or so it would seem. Corey Robin reports on the latest developments in the BDS-at-Brooklyn brouhaha:

Now that the mayor, the New York Times, and just about everyone else have come down hard on all the government officials and politicians who tried to force my department to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the BDS panel, the “progressive” politicians have issued a second letter (their first is here) to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, in which they backpedal, backpedal, backpedal pull back from their earlier position. No longer, it seems, must we “balance” this panel or withdraw our co-sponsorship. [second letter in Robin’s post]

That it took a billionaire mayor to explain these simple matters to our progressive leaders is, well, what can one say? This entire episode has been an instructive example in courage and cowardice, shame and shamelessness. Much congratulations go to the mayor, to President Gould, to the students who organized this panel, and above all to my colleagues in political science, who stood absolutely firm on principle throughout an extraordinarily difficult time, and to our chair Paisley Currah, who led us throughout it all.

The BDS panel, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti will go on tomorrow as planned. The panel is still c0-sponsored by the Political Science department. Again, as I said above, all is well.

Or so it would seem. While this turn of events is rightly viewed by those who fought hard to turn back the Dershowtiz-Hikind-invertebrate City Council politician combine as occasion for celebration, what this entire business portends for the future of academic freedom on the American campus is, I think, a little more grim.

Consider this. Massive amounts of political pressure utilizing media resources was brought to bear on an academic department of a public university to ensure ostensibly, the ‘mere withdrawal of sponsorship’ from a panel discussion on campus. It was never that, of course. The pressure brought on Brooklyn College from the outside was an attempt to regulate discourse on campus. And in that, I fear it has succeeded in many ways.

For one, this event does not make the controversial panel discussion on campus more likely. It makes it more unlikely. Which department or university administration wants to go through this fiasco again? Will university administrators now ask academic departments to clear their sponsorships with them? (Academic freedom you say, but I can see administrators gearing up to couch such ‘requests’ in as vague but demanding language as possible.) Turning back this latest assault on Brooklyn College took a very determined group of faculty; will every university facing a similar crackdown be able to count on such resilience? Even at Brooklyn College, no other department dared co-sponsor the event in solidarity with the political science department; will any of them try to sponsor anything similar down the line? I do not know if the coalition acting against Brooklyn College seriously thought they could shut the BDS panel down; what they might have done is merely played the long game, knowing that even if this panel goes forward, there is little chance anything like it will happen for a long time at Brooklyn College, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Academic Freedom and Syllabus Construction: The Question of ‘Endorsement’ and ‘Balance’

My focus here on this blog, before the weekend’s traveling-imposed break, was academic freedom and on ignorant attempts to severely attenuate it at Brooklyn College. These attempts have relied on two patently dishonest, obfuscatory tactics: equating ‘sponsorship’ with ‘endorsement’ and with proposing ‘balance’ as a valid desideratum for academic content. Today, I want to offer some clarification of ‘academic freedom’ by analogizing the Brooklyn College Political Science department’s act of sponsoring a talk on the BDS movement to a professor’s humdrum, mundane, weekday task of  including an item on a reading list for a class. Or more generally, by analogizing a department’s selection of academic and intellectual offerings to its students to a professor’s preparation of a syllabus.

So, first, consider my Political Philosophy seminar from last semester. Its reading list featured, among others, Burke, Maistre, Paine, Sieyes, Arendt, Walzer, speeches from Robespierre and Saint Just, excerpts from the Federalist Papers. And so on. Am I ‘endorsing’ these writings? Or ‘sponsoring’ them by including them on my reading list? Or am I ‘merely’ indicating to my students these writers are worth reading for a variety of reasons, historical, cultural, intellectual? These are ‘required’ readings for my class; have I somehow put a seal of approval or ‘endorsement’ on them? Do I intend to ‘indoctrinate’ my students? But what happens to these writers when they ‘meet’ my students? I don’t know. They might find Maistre reasonable or Robespierre utterly pellucid or Burke a raving lunatic. I can’t predict. But I do place the readings on my reading list because in my considered assessment of the class, this would be something valuable to read for those considering Political Philosophy. To say this is to do no more than state the obvious: professors add readings of all kinds, all the time, to their reading lists. Their students might or might not respond favorably to those same readings; class discussions can result in a professor’s ‘favorite’ being torn to shreds. A few years ago, I included Susan Okin in a reading list for a philosophy of feminism class; some of my best and brightest mounted a withering critique of Okin that caught me completely by surprise. Inclusion on a reading list is always an invitation to read, discuss and consider. That is all; do with it what you will. You have read the original; make up your mind.

Or consider the question of balance. Do I always have balance in my readings? No. In the fall of 2010, I taught Problems in the Philosophy of Psychology. I decided I would teach the class with an emphasis on psychoanalysis. I decided further, to teach the class with a concentration on Freud. So I had now made two executive selections about the scope of the class. I had narrowed its focus to psychoanalysis and within that to Freud. There are thus, already, two grounds for complaint from those who would want  balance: Why concentrate on psychoanalysis? Why on Freud within psychoanalysis? Why not Jung, Adler, Klein? And then, it gets worse for those would want balance. During the semester, I ‘only’ read a variety of selections from Freud’s corpus along with Jonathan Lear’s little expository book on Freud. But this seems problematic too: Why not read the Popper-Grunbaum critiques of Freud? Why not the feminist critiques? Someone from a science department could conceivably object that I was indoctrinating my students in a pseudo-scientific cult; someone from women’s studies could complain I was propagating sexist, misogynist propaganda. Why didn’t I include anti-Freud voices in my reading list? Surely, I should provide my students some balance? By teaching a whole class on Freud, wasn’t I endorsing him, his writings, his views on women and the appropriate therapeutic treatment of mental disorders, the role of the unconscious in science and philosophy of mind? Heck, wasn’t I endorsing his cocaine use too?

I taught a whole class on Freud and psychoanalysis because I considered Freud and his writings important enough to  the philosophy of mind and psychology to deserve that much attention. But why leave out anti-Freud critiques? Because there was enough of Freud to read; because I wanted our readings to be direct and unmediated and to get a chance to be critical on our own and not be guided too much by other critique; and so on. None of these responses of mine are knockdown responses to these objections to my choice of possible syllabi. The next member of the philosophy department that teaches that class will almost certainly devise a very different reading list. But my responses are adequate if taken on good faith and at face value. I was able to expose my students to some important ideas in the philosophy of mind and psychology by doing some very close critical readings of Freud: we considered the problem of the unconscious in great detail; wondered skeptically about Freud’s extravagant claims for psychotherapy, his being prone to the sexism of his times, and so on.

My syllabi are imperfect; they represent compromises between a variety of competing imperatives. They recognize that professors encounter students at a variety of moments, in a variety of ways, that their students’ education takes place over a period of time, that they will need to encounter many different ideas and ways of thinking if they are to think for themselves, that they should read a lot and write a lot if they are to try to make sense of all that confronts them in this complex world. My duty at any given moment is to think about how I can aid in this process: by pointing my students to a variety of topics and writers they should confront and take on. Sometimes these writings will make them uncomfortable, sometimes they will enrage them, sometimes they will confirm prejudice, sometimes reinforce an old one or dispel it. I cannot control my students’ reactions; I can simply point them in one direction.

The freedom I need as I navigate, with my imperfect and incomplete knowledge, among the various choices available to me, and the constraints I face, as I try to work with  my students is called ‘academic freedom’; it’s what lets me do my job.

BDS, Brooklyn College, and Dismissing Dershowitz (For the Last Time)

Some more direct consideration of comments on my BDS at Brooklyn College and Dershowitz posts (here; here; and here). These are now settling into a familiar pattern of repetition of the same claims again and again and again, so rather than responding to each one of the comments directly, I will address them en masse here; my interlocutors will know who is being addressed. There is an accusation of ad-hominem argument (conveniently made, I suspect, to change the subject and to detract attention from Dershowitz’s bullying and thuggish tactics) and also the ludicrous suggestion that departments not sponsor ‘polarizing’ topics.

The problem, in general, seems to be that the commentators so concerned about logical fallacies, despite being folks apparently capable of writing voluminously, repetitiously and tediously, seem also to lack elementary reading skills. They do not seem to have read my responses to the accusation of ad-hominem argument and neither do they seem to have read Patrick S. O’Donnell’s responses. They seem unaware of the actual understanding, considerably more sophisticated and nuanced and I daresay, literate, than theirs, of fallacies that logicians, philosophers and rhetoricians of all stripes seem to possess. For instance, philosophers of argumentation such as Doug Walton (Toronto) writing on classical fallacies, including ad hominem, have described them as not always fallacious in the ways so quickly imagined. So, as already pointed out by Patrick, I seem rationally justified in being skeptical of claims made by a notorious liar on the ground that these are very likely to be a lie. (Despite my response, I’m heartened by the attention shown to logical fallacies by these commentators; despite their misunderstanding of the concept, the fact that it is even on their radar is a heartening thing.)

But there might be a far more fundamental problem at hand. Despite all the accusations of ad-hominem argumentation, an accusation onto which they have lacked desperately, lacking any point of their own to make in the case actually under consideration (a favored tactic of those unable to address an argument is to change the subject), they have yet to demonstrate that there is an ad-hominem argument at hand. The fact that I describe Dershowitz as a pro-torture plagiarist in the same passage of text where I argue that his characterization of the parameters of debate is a ludicrous one, and that he does not understand the concepts of freedom of speech and academic freedom, does not mean that characterization played any role dismissing his claims. (For instance: ‘You sir, are a knave! Your argument, to which I now turn, is false. Here is how etc…’) As they seem to be so enamored of the accusation, they should please demonstrate systematically, my argument in premise-conclusion form, and point me to the premise that does the ad-hominem work.

Lastly, I have already addressed the claim that the Political Science dept. needs to ensure ‘balance’ or not sponsor ‘polarizing events’ in my post yesterday, so I will not address those claims again. Please read the posts. If you repeat yourself, you are a troll, and I will not feed you.

Note: I’ve just noticed that Patrick S. O’Donnell has responded wonderfully well to the same points as I did above. Thank you.

BDS at Brooklyn College, Academic Freedom, and Dershowitz’s Censorship

Yesterday’s post on Alan Dershowitz‘s attempt to intimidate the Brooklyn College Political Science department into withdrawing its sponsorship of an event on the BDS movement, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, generated some interesting comments. I will offer some brief responses here.

Jared Michaelson worries about departments sponsoring ‘polarizing’ debate:

The concern is this: a political science department becomes less hospitable to certain students when it embraces, or seems publicy [sic] to embrace, a cause that polarizes and alienates whole student groups. If the Poli-Sci department sponsored an event titled, “Preserving Jewish Rights in Ancient Samaria,” or “Ways to Protect Heterosexual Marriage in a Secular Age,” we’d have the same problem: certain students (Palestinians and Gays/Transgender, respectively) would feel like the department was not hospitable to them.

As far as I can see, that’s the only issue against the sponsorship. But don’t misunderstand: it is absolutely wrong, and possibly unconstitutional, to prevent BDS from speaking at the college. It is equally wrong to oppose a department sponsoring a particular speaker, no matter what he or she advocates. The worry is about departments taking up very polarizing causes. And it’s a real worry.

Politics being what it is, most issues of interest to political science departments and their students are likely to be polarizing, especially on a campus as diverse as Brooklyn College. How about talks on the Bangladeshi genocide? That would offend our Pakistani students. Or perhaps someone would like to talk about the Warsaw uprising and its role in post-war communism. But that might offend our Russian students? Where does one draw the line? As I indicated in my first post, college campuses are where students should be going to have their older beliefs challenged, to feel uncomfortable when presented with unconventional viewpoints and arguments. If college is supposed to be yet another installation of the familiar, then why not stay at home and regurgitate the received wisdoms of one’s community, ethnicity, religion and race? Describing some topic as ‘very polarizing’ is neither here or there; someone might be extremely offended by a talk thought by most to be offering the most banal of bromides. Should the department then call a halt because one person has been so affected? Is there a magic number of students that need to express such fears of being offended before the department should reconsider its sponsorship? Should there be a screening committee that vets topics for their polarizing potential (PP) before recommending that a department sponsor it?

Kevin Murtagh admonishes me for an ‘ad-hominem’ attack on Dershowitz (he also echoes Jared’s ‘concern’ above):

Your ad hominem attacks on Dershowitz are, to say the very least, not befitting someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy. I offer you a comment that I have found myself writing in the margins of my 100-level students’ papers: Don’t distract from the evaluation of the author’s argument by attacking the author’s character.

Also, how, exactly, do you conclude that Dershowitz is engaging in “advocacy of censorship” when he explicitly states “My sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of DBS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college.” In fact, most of his essay focuses not on the issue of whether the event should take place, but rather whether the event should receive the official sponsorship of Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department. What does that have to do with freedom of speech?

First off, I merely described Dershowitz. I did not dismiss his arguments on the basis of his character; I offered independent refutations of his incoherent fulminations. So the charge of ad-hominem dismissal fails.

Second, I am impressed by the level of naiveté in Murtagh’s inquiry, in his wholesale acceptance, at face value, of Dershowitz’s claims. In case anyone had missed the details: a Harvard Law professor is writing Op-eds in prominent media outlets and enlisting the support of elected officials to pressure an academic department to rescind its academic decision to sponsor an academic discussion on campus. Murtagh asked me: ‘What does this have to do with freedom of speech?’ Let me in turn: Are you so naive as to believe Dershowitz’s tactics do not amount to intimidation or coercion? Furthermore, why should Dershowitz get to decide what the content and format of academic discussions at Brooklyn College should be? How did he get to be the arbiter of what constitutes an exchange of ideas? When you attempt to regulate the content and format of speech, you are inserting yourself into a freedom of speech debate. When you attempt to enlist political and media aids to attenuate the exchange and flow and visibility of ideas, you are engaging in censorship. If you believe Dershowitz is merely interested in getting the Political Science department to back off from its sponsorship then I have a bridge to sell you.