On Being Honored By Inclusion In The Canary Mission’s ‘Blacklist’

Yesterday, the Canary Mission–a “fear-mongering, McCarthyesque” organization that claims to “document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America”–decided to place me on its so-called ‘watch-list.’ Roughly, the Canary Mission looks for college professors or student activists that speak up about, or participate in, any on-campus happenings related to the rights of the Palestinian people, and then tries to cow them with the publications of its ‘profiles’ on its website and social media; as might be expected, the epithet ‘anti-Semite’ is thrown around rather freely. The Canary Mission accuses me of ‘defending hate speech’ and ‘defending student militancy’:

Defending Hate Speech

Chopra regularly champions the cause of Professor Steven Salaita, the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a frequent subject of Chopra’s blog….In November 2014, the philosophy department at Brooklyn co-sponsored a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event to support Salaita and critique Salaita’s firing from U of I. In addition, SJP invited students to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.”

Chopra, who was instrumental in securing the philosophy department’s sponsorship, wrote that it was an “honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ the event.”

Defending Student Militancy

On May 20, 2016, Chopra testified in defense of two SJP activists, Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, who were among nine Brooklyn College Student Coalition (BCSC) members whose disruptive behavior prompted the shutdown of a Faculty Council meeting on campus….Aly and DeAnglis were initially charged with violating CUNY’s code of conduct, including intentional obstruction, failure to comply with lawful directions, unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct.

On May 20, 2016, Chopra disputed the veracity of the charges and urged the administration to “Drop the charges; apologize to the students.” The next day, Chopra wrote that “Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due” to Aly and DeAngelis.

On May 31, 2016, the anti-Israel legal advocacy organizations Palestine Legal andCenter for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented Aly and DeAngelis at a five hour  disciplinary hearing, where they were ultimately charged and admonished by the university with “failure to comply with lawful directions.”

I plead not guilty to the first charge, and guilty to the second.

Rather predictably, after the Canary Mission tweeted a link to my profile–which sadly, fails to recognize my ‘full professor’ rank and demotes me to ‘associate professor’–along with my photograph, some abusive, poorly written tweets were sent my way. Name and ‘shame’; set up a target who can be then abused on social media and elsewhere; induce, hopefully, a chilling effect. This is the Canary Mission’s style, so to speak. (Some background on its work may be found here in this Alternet piece; these articles at Electronic Intifada serve to highlight its many attempted interventions at stifling free speech on American university campuses.)

Needless to say, I’m honored to be so ‘recognized’ by the Canary Mission. Clearly, someone has been reading my posts here; such confirmation of widespread readership is always gratifying. Furthermore, one can only hope that this newfound fame will bring me more readers, and perhaps direct more attention to the very issues the Canary Mission would like to sweep under the rug. The folks at the Mission were kind enough to include links to my blog posts on my profile page, though disappointingly enough, the ‘Infamous Quotes’ section is not filled out yet, and neither have I seen a sharp upswing in ‘hits’ yet on my blog; one can still hope, I suppose.

Needless to say, there’s little to be done with this attempt at blacklisting other than to make note of its risibility, and to carry on as before.

Brooklyn College And CUNY Owe Reparations To Student Activists

Yesterday, I made note of my attendance at a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College and the City University of New York; the ‘defendants’ were two students accused of violating the Henderson Rules because of their participation in a ‘mic check’ at the February 16th Faculty Council meeting. Yesterday, I received news from the students’ counsel–the folks at Palestine Legal–that the students had been acquitted of three of the four charges. The one violation was of Henderson rule #2, and for that they received the lightest penalty: ‘admonition.’ A formal written ‘judgment’ will be issued next week. And this farce will come to a long-awaited close. But CUNY and Brooklyn College should not be let off the hook.

During my testimony, I was asked if the students had caused any ‘damage’ or ‘harm’ by their actions and speech. I emphatically denied that they had. Now, let us tabulate the damages and harms caused by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s administration. This is a charge-sheet the college and the university administrations need to answer to:

  1. The students protesters were immediately, without trial, condemned in a public communique issued by the college president and the provost. It accused them of making “hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.” As I affirmed, no such comments had been made. Anti-Zionism is a political position; it is not hate speech. And nothing remotely anti-Semitic was uttered by the students. More to the point, the two students on the stand had not even chanted ‘anti-Zionist’ slogans. This condemnation by the college administration resulted in hate speech and abuse being directed at one of the students, a Muslim-American woman, one of our best and brightest, literally a poster child for the college because she appears on posters all over campus advertising our Study Abroad programs. The stress and fear this provoked in her can only be imagined; when she brought her concerns to the college administration, little was done to help her other than making note of the incident and asking to be informed if anything else happened again.
  2. The student protest occurred in February; the hearing was conducted yesterday, three months later, a week before graduation. Three months of stress and tension, and uncertainty about their academic fate for the students–because expulsion was on the cards. Three months of embroilment in a ridiculous charade that in the words of the Brooklyn College president Karen Gould, was supposed to teach the students that ‘actions have consequences.’ Yes, great wisdom was imparted to the students: that speaking up for causes near and dear to you, engaging in political activism, thinking critically–especially if you are a student of color, as both these students are–will provoke retaliation from insecure college administrations, unsure of the worth of their academic mission.
  3. Considerable CUNY resources were marshaled to prosecute the students: CUNY’s legal department was at hand yesterday, an external ‘judge’ had to be brought in from another college to chair the meeting, and at least a dozen faculty members spoke either against the students–for shame!–for for them. We could have spent yesterday reading, writing, attending to scholarship; instead, we had to spend hours waiting in sequestration chambers. I’m glad to have spent that time for a good cause, but it infuriates me that it was ever required.

The true ‘damage’ and ‘harm’ to CUNY and its community has been done by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s punitive and mean-spirited action against the students. Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due.

Brooklyn College’s Punitive Retaliation Against Student Activists

On February 17th, I wrote a blog post here about the student protests at Brooklyn College that took place during the monthly faculty council meeting held the day before. Today, I attended a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College–to determine whether two of the students who had participated in the protests should be ‘disciplined’ for ‘disrupting’ the meeting by violating the so-called Henderson Rules. (As Palestine Legal notes, they are charged with “violating Rules 1, 2, 3, and 7 of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) code of conduct, or the Henderson Rules. The charges against the students range from intentional obstruction and failure to comply with lawful directions to unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct. The students may face penalties ranging from admonition to expulsion.”) My attendance at the meeting was as a ‘witness for the defense’: I testified on behalf of the students.

Continue reading

The February 16th Brooklyn College Student Coalition Protests

On Tuesday, February 16th, in my capacity as departmental delegate for the philosophy department, I attended the monthly Faculty Council Meeting at Brooklyn College. During the meeting, members of the Brooklyn College Student Coalition, who were attending the meeting (as non-voting observers), staged a protest action, which consisted of a reading out of their demands for changes in the City University of New York. As their protest continued, the meeting was adjourned. Some faculty members applauded the students’ action; others simply left. There was no rancor or violence or abuse.

Apparently, that was not the impression others had. Continue reading

On Not Celebrating Steven Salaita’s Settlement With UIUC

I cannot bring myself to celebrate the news of Steven Salaita‘s settlement with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). The reasons for this are fairly straightforward–as noted in a petition now circulating: the crucial legal issues at the heart of his dismissal remain unresolved, and his job has not been reinstated.

Shortly after Salaita announced he would be taking legal action against UIUC, I made some caustic remarks–in the company of many friends–to the effect that UIUC should fire its legal team. How could they possibly have advised a public university to take action that seemed clearly punitive and retaliatory against the exercise of political speech by one of its employees? Did they not envisage the terrible damage that would be done to the university in the discovery stage of trial, where email correspondences and internal deliberations would go public, where it would become clear that the university had succumbed to the pressure exerted by donors?

In conversations with my wife–a lawyer herself–another disturbing possibility presented itself. That the university’s legal team had not discounted such a possibility, that a cost-benefit analysis had been carried out, one which reckoned the financial damage to the university resulting from the loss of donor money if Salaita was appointed as being greater than that resulting from the terms of any out-of-court settlement with Salaita. (The amount that Salaita settled for, $875,000, is far less than some big-pocket donor might have threaten to withhold had Salaita’s appointment not been rescinded. By way of comparison too, think of the salaries of football coaches at large university systems like the University of Illinois.)

And so it has come to pass. Salaita’s case never went to trial; the crucial First Amendment issue that lay at its core was never resolved; and instead, a simple calculus for violating academic freedom has emerged. In saying all this, I do not mean to second-guess the decision made by Salaita and his legal team; he must have wanted put the legal dispute behind him and get on with his life, which has been subject to terrible emotional pressure, and that is not an insignificant consideration. He has a life to live, and it does not need to include being the poster child for a political movement. But it remains unclear whether he will ever find employment at an American university again, for as we might well expect news of his hiring will be greeted by the same furor that precipitated the loss of his UIUC job. His academic future remains in limbo.

To reiterate, the courts of this country were not called on to put their considerable weight behind Salaita’s plea to be reinstated on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been violated. An important legal precedent would have been set had he won, and academic freedom–seemingly perennially under threat when it comes to particular issues in the current political climate–would have received important legal, political, and moral protection. Perhaps I’m too glib in assuming that Salaita would have won, and perhaps his legal team, based on its knowledge of the relevant case law, felt this was the safest path. Fair enough.

Still, when the smoke has cleared, the landscape looks much like the one before. Indeed, university administrators have learned from Chancellor Phyllis Wise‘s behavior how not to fire someone for exercising their  academic freedom, and the amount of settlement lays down a marker all its own. Academics will still remain uncertain about what their free speech rights in this situation.

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.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.