University of Illinois emeritus professor Robert Weissberg published an essay this week with the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a right-wing think tank, in which he argues about the Salaita case: “The trustees are not guilty of violating free speech; their sin is cowardice in overseeing the faculty. They did not perform their job.” It certainly takes some hubris for an openly racist professor who was never punished by the University of Illinois to complain that the trustees have failed to punish offensive left-wing faculty.
I want to refute Weissberg’s attacks on Salaita later on in this blog, but first I should state that the Pope Center had invited me to submit an essay along with Weissberg, and I wrote one for them.
Noting that Weissberg had spoken at a conference of white supremacists, I wrote in that essay: “I think that Weissberg’s views are far more clearly racist than anything Salaita ever tweeted…but nevertheless I do not believe that Weissberg should be punished by the University of Illinois for his bigoted views.” In the editing comments I received from the Pope Center on my essay, it was written, “this ad hominem attack is inappropriate” and the whole section was struck through.
I did not wish to censor an obviously relevant argument to my essay on the question of whether allegations of bigotry could justify firing a University of Illinois professor, and Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center, declined to publish my article without the censorship.
In fact, I think Weissberg’s racism is highly relevant. It reveals some of the double standards found in the Salaita case, and certainly dispels some of the arguments that Salaita would never have had a chance to hold a job at the University of Illinois if he had been accused of racism rather than anti-Semitism.
I do not casually accuse Weissberg of racism, nor would I ever argue that all conservatives who share his political views are racist. There is, in fact, very strong evidence that Weissberg is racist. Most notably, he has attended and been an invited speaker at many conferences of American Renaissance, a well-known racist organization. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has noted Weissberg’s “repeated participation with a white nationalist outfit, American Renaissance, and his explicitly racist writings.”
This is a sentiment about Weissberg shared by some prominent conservatives. National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in 2012, “Unbeknowst to us, occasional Phi Beta Cons contributor Robert Weissberg (whose book was published a few years ago by Transaction) participated in an American Renaissance conference where he delivered a noxious talk about the future of white nationalism. He will no longer be posting here.” Being too racist for National Review is, in fact, pretty damn racist.
A summary of the 2012 American Renaissance conference on its website reveals what Weissberg discussed:
The first speaker Saturday morning was the always stimulating Robert Weissberg, Emeritus professor of University of Illinois at Champagne, who proposed “A Politically Viable Alternative to White Nationalism.” He argued that any movement that is explicitly based on white racial identity is “dead on arrival,” and must be repackaged in order to win successful recognition. The reality—that racial nationalism “is intuitive and written in our genes” and that even children are conscious of race—is a huge advantage for those who want to build a racial movement, but any white movement today that takes an explicitly racial stand will fail: “We are considered just above child molesters.”
Let’s be clear here. Weissberg rejects white nationalism not because he disagrees with racism, but only because he thinks it will be ineffective in an anti-racist political culture. He fully supports the cause of white nationalism as “intuitive” but believes it must be re-packaged in order to win.
Prof. Weissberg argued that an “80 percent solution” would be one that enforced the “First-World” standards of excellence and hard work that attract and reward whites. He pointed out that there are still many “Whitopias” in America and that there are many ways to keep them white, such as zoning that requires large houses, and a cultural ambiance or classical music and refined demeanor that repels undesirables. This approach to maintaining whiteness has the advantage that people can make a living catering to whites in their enclaves.
It’s hard to see anything but racism in admiring “Whitopias” and outlining methods to “keep them white.”
Then, according to the conference summary,
Prof. Weissberg went on to argue that liberals are beyond reason when it comes to race, that explaining the facts of IQ or the necessity of racial consciousness for whites “is like trying to explain to an eight-year-old why sex is more fun than chocolate ice cream.”
I’m going to hope that Weissberg never actually tried to explain to eight-year-olds why sex is fun or why whites are the superior race.
According to the conference summary,
In answer to questions about the adequacy of his “enclave” solution for poor whites who cannot afford to live in them, Prof. Weissberg expressed the hope that less financially successful whites could draw on their sturdy, warrior heritage to protect their own enclaves.
I’m not fluent in the language of white supremacy, but it certainly appears that Weissberg was arguing the poor whites who can’t afford a “Whitopia” should instead shoot minorities they regard as threatening.
This was not Weissberg’s only speech to the white nationalist group. In a 2000 speech about blacks and Jews at the American Renaissance conference, Weissberg wondered why Jews worry about white Christians: “Why not concentrate on where the real enemy is, the blacks?” Weissberg declared, “Jews cherish education, they are obsessed with it. Blacks, on the other hand, destroy it. Anybody who’s gone to schools in the inner city knows that not only do they hate the idea of learning, but they physically destroy the schools and assault their teachers. (Chuckle) I could go on forever on this point.”
This speech occurred when Weissberg was still a full professor teaching at the University of Illinois, as did a 1999 essay he wrote for American Renaissance in which he declared: “Black-white co-existence is a little like having an incurable medical condition.” And in what might be Weissberg’s most racist claim, he wrote: “Blacks generally have a well-deserved reputation for hair-triggered collective violence.”
In fact, Weissberg’s racial fear-mongering about black violence was so extreme that the white supremacist founder of American Renaissance, Jared Taylor, wrote that Weissberg was promoting a “false fear”: “I believe Prof. Weissberg is mistaken about the likelihood that blacks would react violently to changes in public policy.”
The fact that Weissberg is a white supremacist does not, however, refute any of his arguments against Steven Salaita. Fortunately, the evidence does that.
According to Weissberg, Salaita is unqualified for a job in American Indian Studies:
Actually, even the American Indian Studies Program tacitly admits this lack of qualifications. In an on-line petition to reverse the chancellor’s decision he is described as “a leading scholar in comparative ethnic, Arab American, indigenous, and American studies, whose path breaking and prolific scholarship has put him at the forefront of these fields and led to the offer of employment at UIUC.” Notice the absence of a specific scholarly record in Native American Studies.
Weissberg apparently is unaware that the petition he links to has nothing to do with the American Indian Studies Program, so the program can hardly be admitting (tacitly or otherwise) any lack of qualifications. Weissberg’s belief that comparative scholarly research should be dismissed for lacking a “specific scholarly record” in Native American Studies is nonsense. Weissberg may believe that comparative studies should not be allowed as a part of Native American Studies (which would be like arguing that comparative politics shouldn’t be allowed as a subfield of Political Science), but he shouldn’t get to dictate ignorant prejudices about academic fields.
According to Weissberg, “Killing the appointment should have been about scholarly qualifications and why the American Indian Studies Program failed to uphold high standards. Deans and trustees should have asked why somebody who wrote six books on Arab and Middle Eastern politics but not a single opus on Native Americans is hired in American Indian Studies.” But Weissberg is wrong: Salaita’s 2006 book, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, according to the book description, “compares the dynamics of settler colonialism in the United States related to Native Americans with the circumstances in Israel related to the Palestinians…”
Weissberg also claimed about Salaita, “surely a trustee could have said that a web search for his vita uncovered just a single journalist rant about Native Americans—a plea that the United States should return all Indian land.” Let’s hope that a trustee would not be as incompetent at web searches as Weissberg is. A quick web search reveals that Salaita has an article in the new Journal of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and was one of the affiliated faculty in American Indian Studies at Virginia Tech.
Weissberg declares, “I personally would love to see how the Illinois Indian American Studies Program finessed the question of how Salaita compares to comparable scholars in American Indian studies at this stage in his career.” Considering that Weissberg gets the name of the program wrong (it’s American Indian Studies), he may not be the best judge of the scholarship in this field.
In reality, the University of Illinois Associate Chancellor Reginald Alston had nothing but high praise for Salaita’s academic qualifications in his report recommending the job offer:
The uniqueness of his scholarship on the intersection of American Indian, Palestinian, and American Palestinian experiences presents a rare opportunity to add an esoteric perspective on indigeneity to our cultural studies programs on campus…..Again, I support offering Dr. Salaita a tenured position because of the obvious intellectual value that his scholarship and background would bring to our campus. His presence would elevate AIS internationally and convey Illinois’ commitment to maintaining a leading academic program on the historical and sociopolitical intricacies of American Indian culture.
Of course, a racist like Weissberg can’t resist the opportunity to blame dark-skinned people for Salaita’s appointment:
a dirty little secret well known in university life: rigorous scrutiny is less likely to happen when the candidate is a member of “an historically under-represented group” or is hired to fill a position in a department dedicated to such a group, in this case, Native Americans.
Weissberg expressed a similar sentiment in 2012 about black and Hispanic academics: “many those [sic] currently admitted to graduate school or hired are barely qualified.”
But in addition to Weissberg’s racism and his complete ignorance about the field he is judging here, there’s another reason to doubt Weissberg’s invocation of “academic standards” to justify Salaita’s firing: Weissberg’s own history reveals that he is a professor with extraordinarily low academic standards.
One of Weissberg’s former colleagues, Greg Diamond, has written about his experience taking over the large Political Science lecture class with 1200 students that Weissberg had taught (to great personal profit, since Weissberg assigned his own textbook) but where only a tiny fraction of students had bothered showing up for class. Weissberg was so infamous for his low academic standards that when Diamond showed up with a much more intellectually ambitious syllabus, “I believe that I set a world record that may still stand today. About 300-400 students dropped my class in the first two weeks.”
As Diamond noted,
It turned out that Poli Sci 150 had been a scam in more respects than I had thought: it was the “gut” class for which coaches would sign up their athletes…so that they would not have to waste time actually attending a class.
Weissberg himself admitted that to avoid criticism from students, he removed some important topics from his lecture class: “Rather than risk being accused of covering up racism or telling lies, I dropped the topic [the three-fifths compromise] altogether. I similarly removed all discussion of slavery…” Weissberg added that he also removed “most references to crime (no small accomplishment in a course covering the Supreme Court)” and “anything else that might remotely prove an ideological fire hazard.”
Here we have a tenured professor who is so gutless that he intentionally dumbs down his courses (and even removes all discussion of slavery from an American Government class) in order to avoid controversy, and admits to giving his students “incomplete educations.” Weissberg confessed that laziness was one of his prime motivations: “Purging the course is hardly fool-proof, but it is relatively undemanding…”
So, Weissberg’s ruminations about low academic standards seem a bit comical coming from the king of the “gut” class at the University of Illinois. As for Weissberg’s devotion to his academic work, Diamond noted: “he had started a clothing store and so far as I could tell spent most of his time managing it.”
Weissberg summarizes the Salaita case this way: “it’s about the failure of the top University of Illinois administrators to defend intellectual standards against a faculty on the political march. Yes, the trustees eventually behaved correctly but for the wrong reasons.” Weissberg only cares that the trustees are more likely to embrace his values than faculty members, so he wants trustees to intervene on his side by purging leftists. After years of keeping his job despite openly racist declarations, Weissberg wants to simply abandon academic freedom.
I still defend Weissberg’s academic freedom. But I find it difficult to understand how the University of Illinois could employ a white supremacist for decades without ever once criticizing his racism, but then justify firing a critic of the Israeli government.