WTF, or Let Me Know When This Post Becomes So Politically Inflammatory That I Can Be Fired for It

I receive the daily newsletter from the Jerusalem Post, and several days ago, I also received this e-mail:

Spam from Jerusalem Post

 

At first, I thought that the e-mail must be a hoax, a parody, but as far as I am able to tell, it seems to be a legitimate advertisement.

Before going any further, I’d like to make clear that I have a fairly neutral position on the longstanding conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I believe in both Israel’s right to security and the Palestinians right to self-determination. Each time that my sympathies shift more toward one side or the other, someone on that side does something appallingly vicious that brings me back to the neutral or bewildered center. But I also recognize that the resolution of this conflict will not depend at all on where my personal sympathies lie. Tragically, the Israelis and Palestinians will continue to torment and to kill each other until enough people on both sides decide that some sort of more peaceful and productive coexistence is not just possible or preferable but actually the only viable alternative to their mutual terror and devastation.

But, setting my personal views aside, this advertisement does seem to me to provide an opportunity for some further consideration of the recent controversy surrounding Steven Salaita’s tweets and other comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To begin with, I wonder whether my simply posting this advertisement without any comment might be classified as politically inflammatory. Most people on both sides would probably assume that I was letting it speak for itself—that is, that I was either strongly endorsing it or strongly deriding it because why else would I choose to post it.

So the issue would then be whether it would be more or less inflammatory if I framed the advertisement in some manner—such as the “WTF” in my heading—that indicated my attitude toward the advertisement.

Then, assuming that it was clear that I was deriding the advertisement, how necessary would it be for me to indicate that although I might find the promotion of this sort of war-zone tourism appalling, that response would not necessarily mean that I have a more broadly anti-Israeli point of view? Indeed, it could be that I might find the advertisement all the more appalling because I was a very strong proponent of Israel.

The Wikipedia article on the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center includes the detail that its founders have attempted to model it on the Southern Poverty Law Center. I find that comparison mind-bending. I simply cannot imagine the Southern Poverty Law Center promoting this sort of tourist experience. I mean, what equivalent to this sort of vacation package could the SPLC offer? A tour of the sites at which notably horrific hate crimes have occurred? Bus stops at the sites of cross-burnings, bombings, lynchings, and other murderous atrocities? (And yet, even as I type this, I am anticipating that someone will now provide me with links to multiple sites that are pitching just that sort of thing to visitors.)

But let’s shift gears and assume for a moment that the advertisement is a hoax. Would it then be more or less politically inflammatory for me to post it? Would it be worse if I knew that it was a hoax, or if I did not recognize that it was one?

What if I myself had actually produced the advertisement as a hoax, as a parody through which I hoped to make some sort of political statement?

What if I claimed that the target of the parody was not the Israeli government or military but, instead, the manner in which the U.S. media covers the war—allowing us to experience the horror from a safe distance, from the equivalent of a suite in a five-star hotel? When would I have to make such a claim for it not to seem convenient or expedient?

The point is that there might be no end to the possible considerations in framing a judgment on the political meaning of my posting of—of my attention to or creation of–this one advertisement.

In practice, political expression almost never provokes a neutral response—even among listeners or readers with no strong position on a given issue. In fact, the phrase “provokes a neutral response” is itself an oxymoron. So the degree of partisanship that political speech reflects and provokes becomes the real issue, and it seems obvious that deeply held political beliefs will much more likely be expressed in more strongly partisan ways, which means that they will provoke both stronger agreement and stronger disagreement. In essence, then, restricting strong political speech amounts to gutting meaningful political speech. Indeed, one can argue that arriving at some middle position becomes an impossibility if the two competing positions at the extremes have not been very clearly defined and understood.

The Salaita case seems to me to be more about free speech than about academic freedom because the opinions declared to be too inflammatory were expressed well outside any academic setting. But, as other commentators have observed, that his academic appointment at the University of Illinois was rescinded because of his exercise of his free speech rights is a very significant issue for academia. It reflects the increasing corporatization and politicization of our institutions—or, more precisely, the consequences of the increasing corporatization of politics that places more value on ideological conformity than on the free expression of ideas and the free exchange of dissenting opinions. And, of course, as we have seen historically under many repressive regimes, ideological conformity is anything but the fixed standard that it is purported to be. In practice, ideological conformity makes possible the arbitrary exercise of influence and power by whomever happens to have influence and power at the moment. And, under such regimes, universities have seldom if ever functioned to promote a better quality of life or the imaginative expansion of human possibilities.

A basic question that begs to be asked in this case—as in the Ward Churchill case and other previous cases—is not whether the opinions expressed are inflammatory or offensive but what actual harm their expression has caused. The harm in political statements is not always, or perhaps not even usually, proportionate to the controversy that they provoke. For instance, one can argue that much more harm was done by President Bush’s premature declaration of victory on that aircraft carrier than by Ward Churchill’s describing the people in the World Trade Center Towers, including the many victims of the 9-11 attacks, as “little Eichmanns.” Churchill, after all, had no power to translate his opinions into actions directly affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

Likewise, as far as I know, Steven Salaita’s opinions are not shaping events in the Middle East in any substantive way. They are opinions, not policies. There is no reason to protect anyone from them, to quarantine him as if he is carrying some sort of intellectual equivalent of the Ebola virus. University faculty simply aren’t that malleable; most of us have a great many of our own strongly held opinions and very limited power and influence. (In fact, one can make a strong case, I think, that the number of strongly held opinions that a faculty member is willing to express can be calculated accurately by considering in inverse proportion the power and influence that he or she actually has.). Likewise, college students are simply not that impressionable. If they were, Rate My Professors would be the digital equivalent of a largely blank slate. And, lastly, when was the last time that a faculty member’s statements significantly impacted, never mind radically transformed, public opinion and thereby public policy in the U.S.?

Some outstanding faculty and outstanding students can probably be found at most universities. So what distinguishes a university is more the collective impact of its faculty and students, the intellectual environment that stimulates large numbers of faculty and students to become determined to make their own contributions to it.

Ultimately, what opinions are expressed matters much less than whether their expression is protected. Opinions are a dime a dozen, but in the absence of the right to express those opinions, there might just as well be nothing but an awful silence. For the hesitancy to say anything that might be worth arguing about or even thinking about is just one step away from having absolutely nothing to say.

 

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