The David Horowitz Center Posters Brooklyn College With Libelous Hate Speech

On Wednesday morning, shortly after I had finished discussing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes‘ ‘Path of the Law‘ with my Philosophy of Law students and returned to my office for a quick break (before I headed out again to discuss Hannah Arendt‘s The Human Condition with my Social Philosophy students), I found a rather unwelcome message waiting for me: the David Horowitz Center had put up posters at several sites over Brooklyn College, describing several students and two faculty members (political theorist Corey Robin (Political Science) and myself) as ‘terrorist supporters.’ Similar posters, naming other faculty members and students have appeared at other universities this past week. The posters have been designed to mimic ‘Wanted’ posters; here is one of them (the names of students have been blurred out to protect their identity):

The David Horowitz Center, which was named as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, imagines that by indulging in this kind of libelous hate speech, it will cow down those who dare to express political opinions contrary to its chosen line; in this case, speaking up on any matter related to the Israel-Palestine dispute. The Horowitz Center, which is apparently manned by intellectual pipsqueaks incapable of constructing a coherent thought or sentence, has taken its cues from the McCartheyesque Canary Mission–which in turn maintains a ‘blacklist’ of professors at American universities it does not like. (In a post earlier this year, I had made note of their risible attempts at intimidation; that includes tweeting out my photo and their blacklist page on me every few months, which then exposes me to abuse on Twitter from right-wing nutjobs.)

There is much to object to in this latest Goebbelsian attempt to introduce a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech and academic freedom on campuses–of faculty and students alike:

  1. As usual, the ‘third rail’ of political discourse on American campuses is disclosed: speaking on matters related to Israel-Palestine–no matter how tangentially–remains verboten. (Corey Robin has often been abused–in anti-Semitic language!–for his writings in the past, thus showing that what is really operative here is hate.)
  2. Students of color have been named, thus exposing them to potential employment and legal problems with skittish employers and overzealous law enforcement officers.
  3. Faculty members who seek future employment will almost certainly fail to do so because of skittish donors and university administration.
  4. Finally, in the current political atmosphere, such charges, if repeated time and again, will almost certainly stick, with incalculable damage to all thus slandered and libeled.

Here are links to the posts on this blog that have so irked the moral reprobates at the David Horowitz Center and the Canary Mission:

Defenses of the academic freedom and employment rights of Steven Salaita, an American-Palestinian professor, who has now been hounded out of academia.

Defenses of the academic freedom of the Political Science Department to invite Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to speak on campus.

Defenses of the due process rights of student activists from the Students for Justice in Palestine.

Perhaps the folks at these sites were also offended by the fact that I dared protest the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014–for which I spent a few hours in a prison cell along with Corey Robin.

I stand by these posts and by my actions.

Note: I have written to Brooklyn College administration suggesting that legal action be taken against the David Horowitz Center for indulging in libel and defamation.

It’s Never The Right Time To Protest

Tragedies should not be politicized; politics should be done at the right time, in the right way, conducted through the right channels. These nostrums and bromides are familiar; they are trotted out as reminders of the Right Way, the Virtuous Way, for those who protest, who engage in political struggle, who notice the events taking place around them are not bizarre outliers caused by mysterious forces beyond our control, but are instead manifestations of deeper and systemic social, economic, and ideological problems requiring sustained political engagement for their resolution. These invocations of a supposed normative order attached to the means and methods of politics–as I noted in posts responding to claims that those protesting police brutality understand and perhaps even internalize the perspective of the police, or that Palestinian activists express themselves in very particular ways, using approved and banal forms of political speech–serve to constrain and oppress and unproductively channel activist forces and energies towards political cul-de-sacs where they will fizzle out safely. They are the noises the signals of activism contend with in order to make themselves heard and understood.

These calls are not new; it has always been thus. As the Algerian feminist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas noted in the context of feminist struggles in ‘Third-World’ and post-colonial contexts:

It is never, has never been the right moment to protest … in the name of women’s interests and rights: not during the liberation struggle against colonialism, because all forces should be mobilized against the principal enemy: French colonialism; not after Independence, because all forces should be mobilized to build up the devastated country; not now that racist imperialistic Western governments are attacking Islam and the Third World, etc.) Defending women’s rights “now” (this “now” being ANY historical moment) is always a betrayal-of the people, of the nation, of the revolution, of Islam, of national identity, of cultural roots, of the Third World. [quoted by Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak in “French Feminism Revisited”, Feminists Theorize the Political, Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 71.]

The mechanisms of reaction to resistance are rich and varied; they take many forms; they take on many virtuous guises. They bid activists look hither and thither for guidance from ideals and objectives that are mere distractions. They claim occult compulsions should stay activists’ hand and feet and quieten and attenuate their voices; they suggest activist commitments are betrayals of other causes, ones whose claims should be recognized as more pressing, more demanding of their passions and energies.

But reaction is reaction. Its aims are always the same . It seeks only one outcome and it directs itself towards it with unflagging energy and passion and creativity: the preservation of existing orders of power. When the smoke clears, and when all the homages have been paid to the various idols it bids the activist worship and be in thrall to, the reactionary wishes to see the world as it was: configured and arranged to sustain its position at the top of the Great Political Chain of Being.

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.”

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.