Three prisoners are about to be executed by firing squad. The sergeant in charge of the execution approaches each of them, asking if they want to be blindfolded.
He asks the first: “Do you want a blindfold?”
“Yes,” comes the reply, in a resigned tone.
He turns to the second man.
“Do you want a blindfold?”
Finally, the sergeant arrives at the third man.
“Do you want a blindfold?”
“No,” the third man replies.
At this, his neighbor leans over, and says: “Don’t make trouble. Take a blindfold.”
I have been thinking about this bit of gallows humor (from the deep archive of Jewish gallows humor) a lot lately. It is a profound joke, more profound, maybe, than it seems at first. In any event, not making trouble is no longer an option, if it ever was.
On May 14, 2014, The New York Times published a column entitled “The Commencement Bigots,” written by Timothy Egan. Slate published something similar by Amanda Hess at around the same time. I’m sure there were others, roughly along the same lines. May was a good month to be in the “kids these days”/ “leftists are the real McCarthyites” business.
Egan column is a prolonged lament, a melancholy rumination on the injuries suffered cases of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde at the hands of certain illiberal bachelors-to-be of the arts and sciences.
Protests by students at Rutgers had convinced former Secretary of State Rice to call off her planned commencement address in New Brunswick, just as actions by students at Smith College drove IMF head Lagarde to withdraw from similar commitments in Amherst. The final insult, for Egan (in his assumed position of last defender of the liberal academy), was the rejection, by popular dis-acclamation, of Robert J. Birgeneau as graduation speaker at Haverford College (Birgeneau, former Chancellor at Berkeley, is disliked by many progressives and leftists, who blame him for failing to reign in police repression of peaceful protests). Rice, Lagarde, Birgeneau: each deprived of their right to intone dull platitudes and hit applause lines by unnamed undergraduate “bigots.”
Egan paints Rice, Lagarde, Birgeneau as victims of a new offensive against academic freedom, thought leaders unfairly denied a platform upon which to thought-lead (this is all a little insane, of course, since these are people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year giving speeches, and who, unlike the rest of us, have ready access to TV appearances and newspaper op-ed pages).
Overlong preamble notwithstanding, I am not writing today to revisit the awfulness of Timothy Egan.
I am writing today for a much more important reason. We now face a real example—not some figment of the op-ed writer’s imagination ––of the contemporary academy silencing dissent.
A real betrayal of academic freedom—stunning, almost surreal in its Kafkaesque evilness––now unfolds at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here, we have seen real bigotry, triumphant. Thus far, the Timothy Egans have been silent. That’s not a great surprise. (We will be the first to celebrate them, however, should they swerve from familiar patterns and demonstrate a little backbone and intellectual consistency).
The rest of us, however, need to speak up. Right away. Loudly and persistently. This is an emergency.
I refer here to UIUC’s announcement of the non-act of “un-hiring” Professor Steven Salaita. The details of the case, as best as I can reconstruct them, are as follows. Salaita is a well-regarded and professionally accomplished scholar of comparative ethnic, Arab American, indigenous, and American studies. He was, until recently, a tenured professor in the English Department at Virginia Tech. Earlier this year, Salaita accepted an offer to move into a tenured position at UIUC in the American Indian Studies program. Salaita resigned from Virginia Tech, and his family prepared for a move to Illinois.
As is typically the case in higher education, some paperwork remained to be “rubber-stamped” by the Board of Trustees as Salaita worked to get ready for the Fall 2014 semester at UIUC. Responsibility for passing on these materials to the Board of Trustees fell to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Earlier this month, Wise abruptly and without warning or explanation chose not to pass Salaita’s paperwork on to the Trustees, essentially firing him by way of a covert “un-hiring.” The widespread perception within the media (left, right, and not-otherwise-specified) is that Wise embarked upon this unusual course of action in response to concern (On whose part? Expressed in what way?) regarding Salaita’s Twitter account, which contained material to which some supporters of Israel objected.
Salaita, in the meantime, no longer has a job to return to in Virginia. Scholars from all corners of academia are outraged, boycotting UIUC, and trying to mobilize around Salaita’s cause. To our embarrassment, historians have been among the least active participants in this campaign. Let us pledge to correct for this, presently.
Whatever one’s ideological position, Salaita’s case would seem to be a clear example of the breach of academic freedom, an extraordinary insult to the hiring committee that offered Salaita the appointment, a violation of the norms of employment law (pegged to the doctrine of “promissory estoppel”), and of course, most crucially, an act of aggression against the career of a fellow scholar.
But because we live in the time and place that we live in: let us cut to the quick. I have read through Salaita’s tweets, and have reached the conclusion––as a Jewish historian, a historian who has read widely in the history of anti-Semitism, and a trained close-reader of texts in general––that there is no anti-Semitism to be found here. On the contrary, Salaita’s relevant tweets seem to fall into two areas (all of which fall well within the norms of political speech): 1) outrage and sorrow in the face of the death and suffering; 2) strong condemnation of the ideology of Israel’s right wing, the actions of the IDF, and the “my country right or wrong” groupthink of Zionist hyper-patriots, often expressed in layered and sequential messages, caustic or ironic in tone. Not everyone likes such tweets. So what?
We should not have to do this. We should stick to questions of form and refuse all inquiries into content. It doesn’t matter what Salaita tweeted. We have played into their hands. We know that to engage in this exercise is to say: “yes, there is a case in which a Twitter feed could be so damning that this would be the correct way to handle the employment of professors.” We have to refuse this. We have to insist that everyone is entitled, as a civil right, to a full expressive life outside the workplace, a life that includes engaging in whatever politics towards which one feels drawn, and using social media in whatever ways one sees fit. I know that smug commenters love to laugh at coddled academics, unused to the “real world” of business, wherein employers have normalized ideas of “culture” and “fit” as ruses of discrimination, insisted upon the provision of credit scores, demanded Facebook passwords, and in many sectors eliminated any meaningful distinction between the time of work and the time of life. To those commenters we say: this is all a goddamn nightmare, outside or inside the academy. Its metastasis outside the walls of the university does not justify its importation within them. Let’s make it stop, everywhere.
Finally, emphatically: this is not a Zionist/anti-Zionist issue. Every academic should feel terror in her bones that after writing a dissertation, publishing a series of peer-reviewed books and articles, accumulating a stellar teaching and service record, and working through the complex process of applying for jobs, a career might be stopped dead in its tracks because a well-positioned bureaucrat has decided that the paperwork should not be sent through to the Board of Trustees. This should spook a Marxist as much as an Austrian, a deconstructionist as much as a New Critic, a Young Earth creationist as much as an astrophysicist.
And we should bear in mind that we still do not know why UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise chose not to pass on Salaita’s paperwork. As I have followed UIUC’s PR campaign, and the erratic way that the seeds of “plausible deniability” have been sown, this way and that, the impression that lingers is the shoddy and partial character of the official narrative. We should demand, at a minimum, a thorough timeline of the process whereby Salaita was un-hired. Was the decision unilateral? Did it involve “due diligence”? Did it follow “best practices”? What the hell is going in Urbana-Champaign?
It is time to refuse the blindfold. Salaita’s fate is our fate.
Please sign this petition here
To learn more about the UIUC boycott, please go here
To stay informed about breaking developments, check Corey Robin’s blog frequently
 Berger, Arthur Asa. The Genius of the Jewish Joke. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997.
 For an excellent critique of the form, see http://clrjames.blogspot.com/2014/05/dad-rule-hatred-of-students.html
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