After following the Steven Salaita affair with intense interest ever since news of his firing broke, I finally heard him speak in person at the New School this afternoon. I was pleased to shake his hand and to be warmly greeted by Nidhi Srinivas, a New School professor and Facebook friend who helped organize the meeting. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to meet Nikhil Singh, an NYU professor and another Facebook friend who was on the panel alongside yet another FB friend Steven Salaita. Interesting how a capitalist vulture like Mark Zuckerberg can create the technology that connects radicals. For all the scare talk from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, I’ll take my chances with the Internet just as I do with the telephone.
Claire Potter, a history professor at the New School (my alma mater) who blogs as “The Tenured Radical” at Chronicle of Higher Education chaired the meeting. I confess never having read her blog since it is linked in my mind with Cary Nelson’s “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical”, a book that once graced my bookshelf. As most of you know, Nelson has pretty much functioned as Police Inspector Javert to Salaita’s Jean Valjean so my reaction has been to put a minus where he puts a plus. Maybe Claire should rename her blog “Not Cary Nelson”—that would increase her readership by tenfold at least. In the meantime I will keep up with her blog from now on since she was an excellent chairperson, informing the audience of perhaps 75 people about the background on the case.
Steven Salaita was the first to speak. He took the opportunity to address points that have not received that much attention to the media coverage that was obsessed over his tweets.
Most revolved around the racism that is both implicit and explicit at the University of Illinois. To start with, the assault on the right of an indigenous studies department to hire a professor is tied to the ongoing racism there that is reflected in a number of ways. No matter how many times the department and activists who sympathize with its goals have raised the issue of Chief Illini, a racist mascot that used to be featured prominently at football games and that was as much of an affront to native peoples as the Washington Redskins moniker, his presence is still pervasive at the school.
It is not just native peoples who get the shitty end of the stick at this university with its multicultural pretensions. It is also Black and Latino professors and students. Salaita pointed out that the school has been losing people of color from the faculty for a number of years now, a reaction to the prevailing racism. With a student body of 43,000, there are only 332 Black students in the freshman class. There are also social gatherings on campus that Latino students would find most “uncivil” as the student paper reported in 2006:
A recent exchange between the University chapters of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity has sparked a controversy because it played on ethnic stereotypes of Latinos. The exchange, which happened Oct. 5, had a “fiesta” theme, said Cassie Arner, alumnae adviser of the sorority.
A Tri Delta official said one of the women at the party made herself look pregnant, and that some of the women who attended unofficially dubbed the exchange “Tacos and Tequila.”
Ashanti Barber, member of Iskra, a social justice organization, and junior in LAS, said that the men at the party wore sombreros and ponchos and claimed to be illegal aliens or farmers.
Speaking of civility, Salaita reminded the audience that the term has the same root as civilization, a word that was consciously used to draw a distinction with “savagery” when the New World was being conquered. As Nikhil Singh would remind the audience during his remarks, Gandhi had the right take on this when he was asked for his opinion on Western civilization. His reply: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
Next to speak was Ibrahim Shikaki, a Palestinian economics major at the New School who has been active in the struggle around BDS. He gave a shocking (maybe not so shocking at this point) report on how the U. Cal Berkeley student senate voted 16 to 4 for divestment in 2008 when he was a student there. To their dismay, the president of the student senate vetoed the measure after consulting with powerful Zionist organizations.
There was a lot riding on this vote apparently. Students who voted for the measure were contacted by Zionists who warned them that their names would be displayed prominently in a Google search linking them to anti-Semitism, making it impossible for them to get into a good graduate school.
He also reported on trying to enter Jerusalem. He was stopped a crossing and told that he was invited to meet with an Israeli cop to have coffee. The meeting turned into an interrogation over the many Youtube clips that featured Shakaki conducting himself “uncivilly”, in other words protesting Israeli aggression.
Nikhil Singh spoke next. Much of his talk consisted of glowing remarks on a book that Salaita had written, titled “The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism And the Quest for Canaan (Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms)”. It turned out that they were extracted from a letter that Singh wrote on behalf of Salaita on his application for the U. of Illinois position. Singh stated that he only writes such letters of recommendations when he is convinced that the applicant is a strong candidate. Furthermore, nobody that he has ever recommended has been rejected. The callous and duplicitous rejection of Salaita was not only an affront to him but to Singh as well, in fact an affront to academic standards universally.
The last speaker was Ann Snitow, who is the director of Gender studies at the New School and a long time feminist activist. The axis of her talk was on the need to see past platitudes of “civility” and to understand that such calls emanate from the white and powerful figures in academia who regard people of color, women and gays a rude and unwanted presence in campuses where the status quo is rigged against them.
She talked about the Matsunaga incident at the New School when Sekou Sundiata, an African-American poet and professor at the New School, defaced a placard at an art show that he regarded as racist.
Snitow, a feminist who had fought against tendencies in the movement to “protect” women against porn even when made by women for their own pleasure, was expected to argue for the right of the artist to express himself without an intervention from Sundiata who was seen by some as tantamount to Rudolph Giuliani assailing art he regarded as anti-Catholic.
Snitow told people at the New School that the institution has protected the right of free speech for decades but not so much the right of Blacks to feel like they are part of the community. As such, she stood by Sundiata.