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Why Tenured “Radical”? And Other Political Confessions

February 14, 2013, 1:36 pm

It appeared that my ability to join the collective hinged on my agreement with all the criticisms of my past political thinking and work, and not just a willingness to consider them….The criticism indicated that I was inferior to other members of the collective, and I wanted the opportunity to prove that I had a substantial history of work and ideas, and that I should be considered an equal. So I agreed with the criticisms in general, and said I would rethink things in light of the criticism. I thought to myself, I could always change my mind.

Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Too Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as  a Weatherman (2010)

A central theme in several autobiographies of former radical antiwar activists is the role that criticism sessions played in persuading people to adopt a new world view, one that ran counter to attitudes they might previously have valued as members of civil society.  I have been thinking about this a lot in the past few days as I have been trying to decide which passages in the comments section of Tenured Radical I could and could not stomach.

Do I wish I had never written about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) event last weekend? Perhaps, but not because I think I was wrong to ask questions about the effects of academic and cultural boycotts on free speech; or about the consequences of a political organization creating policies about what is, and is not, an appropriate exchange of ideas. But I regret the time suck, and it is never pleasant to be the object of a prolonged attack. It appears that the unpleasantness will continue, as a comment satirizing me as a racist is now making the rounds of Facebook, thanks to a former Zenith colleague.

The viciousness of some of the responses was illuminating. Despite the fact that the critics who showed up here believe that my concerns have been definitively and permanently addressed, I think what happened in this space — the insults, the shaming, the demands that I recant immediately, the distortions, the taunting that I was claiming “victimhood,” the charges of racism and red-baiting, and the assertions that I was out to destroy BDS — suggest otherwise. Members of this movement do want to silence individuals who do not represent BDS as it wishes to be represented.

This does not deny the obvious fact that powerful influences have, until recently, almost completely marginalized and suppressed public discussion about Palestinian human rights. It does not deny the daily reality of the violent Israeli Occupation. But any BDS partisans who operate in other public settings as they did on this blog should expect to be called out on it.

For all the h8ters, there have been several old friends who know me better than to be complicit with those who characterized me as racist and reactionary and who have taken the time to comment. There have been many more — some on blog and others on email — who have written me privately to express their sympathies about the effects of these attacks. I most especially want to thank David Shorter, not only for posting a rebuttal that addressed my concerns and created a space for empathy, but for beginning his email by affirming that friends don’t trash friends in public and without warning. In case you don’t know David, that person who tries to live intentionally and with acute intellectual engagement is really who he is. I want to thank Margaret Soltan for addressing the chilling atmosphere of the comments sections at University Diaries, and the Person For Whom I No Longer Work for reaching out with sympathy and affection.

I also want to reiterate the comments  policy:

There will be no purely personal attacks, no using the comments section to tease someone else relentlessly, and no derailing the comments thread into personal hobbyhorses. Violators will be dealt with politely and swiftly. Too many people at AHA told me that they were avid readers, but never commented, because the atmosphere in the comments section is so ugly. Let’s make it a group project in 2013 to change that.

Clearly my many detractors of the last few days didn’t get the memo, although I suspect many of them wouldn’t care if they had.  I promised I would put this policy in the sidebar, and now I will. Five hard-core commenters who cannot, and will not, agree to disagree have been banned.

  • You can continue to read Élise Hendrick at her own blog;
  • you can read journalist Ali Abunimah (who was not banned, and whose initial comments are a model of restraint and civility), at The Electronic Intifada;
  • you can read jinjirrie at Kadaitcha;
  • you can follow Professor Rima Najjar on Twitter.
  • you can follow Lisa Duggan by Googling her or on her Twitter account, where her campaign against me continues. Among her milder characterizations of me in the past week is that I am stupid and uneducated, which may be why even writing of mine that she agrees with “nauseates” her (this on Face Book.) So I would suggest you stay out of her way. I have storified herehere and here (in which Lisa does not seem to understand that blocking me does not make her Tweets invisible to me, it only prevents me from responding directly) but you probably will want to read her work, which is very smart, wherever you can find it.

OK, so now to answer a few frequently asked questions:

Why is this blog called Tenured Radical? The name is ironic, and drawn from Roger Kimball’s 1990 attack on university faculty, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. When this book came out, the culture wars were starting to crest, and numerous folk on the right decided that anyone to the left of Ayn Rand was a radical threat to the nation. At the time, just starting out on the tenure-track myself, I thought this was kind of a hoot. The greatest threat to my own career and professional well-being were the vast number of conservative tenured proffies who seemed determined to marginalize and undermine most scholarship related to the various activisms that had come out of the New Left.

Later, when I became tenured myself, while I took seriously the belief of many left scholars that tenure has an important role in protecting academic freedom, I could not help but be persuaded of the conservative effect the tenure system has on knowledge production as a whole. To this day, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences remains hindered by the requirements of field, and tenure processes depend on refereeing by field experts. Interdisciplinary scholarship, where many of the most important paradigm shifts occur, often has a difficult time in such a system.

Therefore, the phrase “tenured radical” — embraced by the right as a way of organizing a broader attack on the intellectual classes as a whole — is to me an oxymoron, as well as being an accurate descriptor of people who have tenure and, simultaneously, very radical political commitments. I thought it a perfect title for this blog.

What kind of a space is Tenured Radical? This is a space to write about things that cannot be published in a timely way elsewhere, or that are not traditionally academic in their orientation. It is a space for challenges, questions, and humor, where arguments are sometimes made as much by affect and deflection as by meticulous argumentation and the summoning of evidence. As a practice, blogging uses hyperlinks rather than footnotes, and blogs are not refereed.

Assertions to the contrary aside, being criticized by partisan strangers does not constitute a legitimate refereeing process. Instead it is closer to something called “crowd sourcing,” a practice that some e-journals are experimenting with. When done well it often produces great conversations and pushes the original post further. When done poorly, however, the comments section becomes a location for abusive, nasty and aggressive acting out.  The blogger has two choices: to fight back (poor idea, particularly when commenters have begun by challenging her honesty and integrity, or her right to express herself on the topic at hand); or to say nothing (allowing the commenters to congratulate each other.)

What was the quality of my engagement with my critics? I think in many cases it surpassed the quality of their engagement with me, which consisted mainly in telling me that everything I was thinking about has been decided definitively by others far more intelligent and experienced than I.  While I would continue to support and encourage the presence of BDS organizing on campus, and agree that organizers should shape their forums with complete attention to their own intellectual freedom, part of what intellectual freedom means is to be able to express doubts and not be called a racist, a liar, a red-baiter, a Judith Butler h8ter, or a Zionist; or be characterized as stupid, reactionary, white supremacist, colonialist,  ignorant, colossally uninformed and desiring the destruction of an international progressive coalition. Whatever was the point of that, the work it does is to deflect attention from a reasonable conversation about an organization’s policies and their effects.

And as to the “liberal” thing — I do characterize myself as a New Deal liberal on Twitter, and I remind people that despite its substantial flaws and unwillingness to challenge pervasive racism, the New Deal was considered to be quite radical at the time. It was redistributionist, regulatory, established taxation as a counterweight to capitalism, and most importantly, put the state behind unionism and workplace equity.

Am I a “liberal”? In some things — in others, more radical. Why must I fit in a box of someone else’s choosing? More importantly, readers should understand the historical stakes here. As my colleague Jeremy Varon has written in Bringing the War Home, radicals began to turn on liberals in the 1950s when they “lost any hope of working within the political system,” and by the late 1960s, “liberalism was the target of relentless attacks by the left,” many of which were focused on universities and the collaboration of university intellectuals with half-measures to address structural racism and genocidal wars abroad. By the mid 1960s, Varon writes, “‘liberal’ had become a dirty word among activists, used to denounce a worldview that subscribed to tepid versions of all the right things, while recoiling from the kinds of change that would challenge the supremacy of whites.” (27-8)

So when I say there’s a history of this kind of thing? There’s a history of this kind of thing.

Why did I not retract my post in the face of criticism? If you look at it, fewer than a dozen people were commenting negatively, and none of those were central to organizing and defending the Brooklyn College event (which — hello? I supported and applauded.) In addition, I find deliberate intimidation, sneering and public shaming to be revolting tactics. They are a tremendous weakness within BDS, as they shrink the possibility that the vast majority of people who share ethical concerns about the ongoing human rights abuses in Israel and the Occupied Territories will want to be associated with ugly, and in the end, ineffective tactics.

Commenters: dissent is welcome, but h8ters will be banned –with appropriate links to places where you tolerate that level of incivility.

 Related updates: Matt Guterl on “Roadhouse Rules;” and a report on the actual (as opposed to the virtually cited) Judith Butler at Zenith last night.

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