New York State Fair (2014)

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The Great New York State Fair is a different kind of place. I am sure I was the only one there who ever heard of Steven Salaita. As you might have noted last year, I’m posted before, we’re there pretty much every day of the fair. A always, the descent over rt. 690 from the Orange Lot to the main gates is particularly dramatic. As I’m sure I posted last year, what keeps my interest is the confluence of “man,” machine, and animal, the look into the varied lives and cultures of Upstate New York. The Fair’s almost over. I got stuck this summer writing about Israel and Gaza. Last year, I posted a lot from the Fair, maybe this year a bit less.

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Cartoonish Steven Salaita Tweets (Lose-Lose Zero-Sum)

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Apart from the BDS movement, which has acquired for itself a martyr, there are no obvious“winners” in the Steven Salaita dust-up at UIUC. It’s a strictly lose-lose deal. The offending tweets are just too stupid in character to justify the pressure exerted on the university to terminate his hiring. His most vocal and active critics in the Jewish community look stupid, tarnishing their own cause, i.e. the cause of Israel, by rising to the bait. But, for sure, the biggest loser is Salaita himself. He has a family to support and may find himself without a job unless he can win his case in court. Also on the losing side of the ledger is the cause of academic freedom, assuming that this is the quality of expression that we are forced to protect before the greater public already skeptical or indifferent about the work we do, especially in the humanities.

While legally Salaita may very well have been done wrong, politically and morally it’s hard not to see how the tweets have done damage by as meager a thing as a series of sophmoric tweets. Others I am sure will argue this point, but 140 characters in length, the peculiar thing about tweets is that you cannot take them out of context. More often than not, with a tweet, the text is its own context, the first and typically the only thing that meets the eye. Someone should have begged him to stop.

My own sense is that, no, the tweets are not really a big deal. But it’s also my sense that, yes, at the same time,  they are a big deal because of the damage that they have wrought. Protected speech, to be sure, I wonder how many people will be compelled, politically and morally, to rush to protect such cartoonish expression. Left to dry, the tweets will have only contributed, along with the fury generated by them, to a coarsening and hardening of the discourse in the U.S. about a complex political and moral conflict.

As collected by Cary Nelson, I am presenting below this paragraph the offending Steven Salaita tweets below as a stream, one after another, each one followed in bold by own doctored emendation, which I then struck out in order to distance myself from them, and to reject in toto the kinds of expression that appear about Israel and Palestine with such consistent and depressing regularity. The doctoring of the tweets is meant to suggest how easily they represent nothing if not a pro-Palestine flip side of Pamela Geller.

“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank Palestinians would disappear/die.

“Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.”

Joseph Massad’s article should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.

 

“Somebody just told me F.W. DeKlerk doesn’t believe Israel is an apartheid state (a terrorist organization). This is what Zionists have  been reduced to” (May 28, 2014);

“Somebody just told me Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization. This is what support for Palestine has been reduced to

“Universities are filled with faculty and admins whose primary focus is policing      criticism of Israel that exceeds their stringent preferences” (May 25, 2014)

“Universities are filled with faculty whose primary focus is criticism of Israel”

“‘Israel army’ and ‘moral code’ go together like polar bears and rainforests” (May 25, 2014)

Justice for Palestine and terrorism go together like polar bears and ice floes.

“So, how long will it be before the Israeli government starts dropping white phosphorous on American college campuses?” (May 23, 1014)

So, how long will it be before Palestinians start setting off bombs on American college campuses?”

“Even the most tepid overture to Palestinian humanity can result in Zionist histrionics” (May 21, 2014)

Even the most tepid overture to Israeli humanity can result in anti-Zionist histrionics

“All life is sacred. Unless you’re a Zionist, for whom life is a mere inconvenience to ethnographic supremacy” (May 20, 2014)

All life is sacred. Unless you’re a supporter of Hamas

“I fully expect the Israeli soldiers who murdered two teens in cold blood to receive a commendation or promotion” (May 20, 2014)

“I fully expect the Hamas terrorists who murdered three teens in cold blood to receive a commendation or promotion”

“Understand that whenever a Zionist frets about Palestinian violence, it is a projection of his own brute psyche” (May 20, 2014)

“Understand that whenever anti-Zionist frets about Israeli violence, it is a projection of his own brute psyche”

“I don’t want to hear another damn word about ‘nonviolence.’ Save it for Israel’s child-killing soldiers” (May 19, 2014)

“I don’t want to hear another damn word about ‘nonviolence.’ Save it for Hamas child-killing terrorists”

“I stopped listening at ‘dialogue’ ” (May 27, 2014).

If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised” (July 19, 2014)

If Khaled Meshal appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised”

“By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists, by confusing resistance and terrorism, are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror” (July 18, 2014).

“By confusing resistance and terrorism, Palestinians are partly responsible when people say Islamaphobic shit in response to Palestinian terror”

“Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” (July 19).

“Hamas: transforming ‘Islamophobia’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1988

“”Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” (July 8)

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Palestine right now you’re an awful human being

“Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime” (July 14),

Islamist uplift in America: every little Muslim boy and girl can grow up to join ISIS

“No wonder Israel prefers killing Palestinians from the sky. It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?” (July 23)

It turns out in Syria, (Muslim) American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?

“[Twitter] is the perfect medium [in which to] dispense slogans in order to validate collective self-righteousness” (May 14, 2014)

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Steven Salaita, Public Critique, and Academic Freedom

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The following paragraphs represent a composite correspondence taken from two FB exchanges with two different colleagues who are behind Steven Salaita in the collision at UIUC. The discussion touches upon two or three things regarding the poisoned politics of Israel and Palestine in relation to real and ongoing threats to academic freedom and faculty governance posed by university administrations and financial donors. The Israel and Palestine dimension of this composite considers “demands” by anti-Zionist activists to require American Jews to account in a public and transparent way the nature or character of their support for Israel, the question about what might be “demanded” of Arab Americans vis-à-vis the same re: Palestine and radical Islam, and the principle of academic freedom that has surfaced with the recent case concerning Salaita. (I am maintaining some of the second person address for stylistic effect.)

Here’s what I wanted to say: Yes, this gets tricky and the analogies don’t line up well, especially re: ISIS. But neither do the Israel=Apartheid=Nazism analogies, which are rhetorically equivalent to what the government in Israel wants us to think re: Hamas=ISIS. Yes I agree one has the right to ask or demand a public accounting from American Jews for supporting Israel, but the question is on what terms are we going to have the discussion and debate. This has nothing to do with Steven Salaita, except insofar as he is emblematic as to how the discussion about Israel and Palestine gets reduced to its lowest denominator. How do you defend yourself against unfalsifiable claims such as “you support genocide if you support Israel in any of its manifestations.” By “Israel” and “Zionism,” clearly anti-Zionists and liberal Zionists are talking about non-identical animals.

About Israel, I remain liberal center left, a position that earns more contempt in certain circles than does rightwing Zionism. But these are circles that have as little to contribute to any serious practical outcome as do the rightwing Zionists themselves. I am committed to a democratic Jewish majority country alongside an independent Palestinian state, as well as the right of Israel to defend itself. Liberal Zionism might be dead, but the alternatives are worse and unlikely to materialize short of the catastrophe that the worst critics of Israel would wish upon it and which the worst supporters of Israel only encourage. I want Jews to repudiate the 1967 occupation, and the deep seated anti-Arab racism in Israeli life and at the underside of Zionist discourse and practice from its inception. But I also want Muslims to repudiate the many things that many seem to support or tolerate or simply overlook, including Hamas, armed conflict and terrorism, and calls to eliminate Israel and Zionism, as well as the abusive anti-Semitism such positions seem to fuel. (About this you can read more in this article by Asif Zaidi that was republished at +972)

About Salaita in particular, I wonder what effect he and the example he has been made of have on “the real world” outside the university and social media. I’ve been persuaded by you and others that the hire should have gone through for institutional purposes relating to faculty governance. I am, for all that, unsurprised and unsympathetic only because I believe as well that the political judgment and moral abusiveness represented by Salaita and many like him in anti-Zionist circles have done so much to poison the discussion of Israel and Palestine on campus and online on social media.

Regarding the principle of academic freedom, much besieged in the world today, I understand completely the point about the need to dig in on this fight, that we can’t wait for the perfect poster child around which to organize that struggle.  What i can say from my own narrow perspective is that this one’s a fight I can’t join, as much as I would like to see it adjudicated fairly in court. I have to think that I am not the only faculty colleague out there who is not going to fall on his sword in solidarity with Salaita. I think it’s important to choose fights wisely, and I tend to avoid fights that I don’t think I can win. Resistance for the sake of resistance is self-defeating when you bang up again and again against a political wall.

The Salaita case is interesting, because his case can probably be won on the legal merits. At the same time I also think it would be hard to rally around him the kind of political solidarity and moral sympathy required to win the broader fight for the university in the public sphere. In part, this may be one more reason why I think BDS is such a potentially destructive and perhaps increasingly destructive force on campus these days. Last year BDS jumped the shark at Vassar. I worry that this year will be worse. There are no winners here when this happens, not the cause of Palestine, not the cause of Israel, and not the principle of academic freedom. We’re all losing together.

 

 

 

 

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Steven Salaita (Uncivil Speech, Obnoxious Speech, Abusive Speech)

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Regarding the matter of Steven Salaita, I’ll agree that UIUC should have honored the contract with Steven Salaita and “welcome” him to campus, if only for the contractual reasons as argued by many faculty colleagues and friends. But the case is far more complicated. In addition to [1] legal-procedural considerations, there are also [2] political and [3] moral ones that complicate the case. These three issues are separate, but not completely separable. They are further complicated by questions regarding social media presence of university faculty, and the fine degrees that distinguish free speech, critical speech, uncivil speech, obnoxious speech, and abusive speech.

For whatever reason, the supporters of Steven Salaita have not discussed the content of the tweets that have caused so much trouble, except to sometimes concede that they are, indeed, obnoxious. At the core of the tweets is the painting of Israel, Zionism, and the American Jews who support them as genocidal, racist, settler colonial, child killers. Given the nature of the medium, the tweets contain no core of argument apart from the graphic presentation itself, based as it is on images and slogans. One retweet caught a lot of attention, suggesting that an argument by journalist Jeffery Golberg belong on the sharp end of a shiv. Salatia’s is the kind of rhetorical violence that gins up the discourse about Israel and Palestine, makes it coarse, uncompromising, reactive, and unthinking. There may be nothing anti-Semitic per se in any of the tweets. But there seems to be a lot of Jew-baiting. Examples would include the challenge to American Jews to own up to “genocide,” mocking American Jewish volunteers in the IDF who were killed in the fighting with Hamas, associating Israel and its leaders with infanticide, or the quip that Israel makes “anti-Semitism” respectable. Many of the rhetorical barbs directed at Jewish supporters of Israel and Zionism have a “have you stopped beating your wife” kind of character to them.

[1] Re: legal due process, it has been argued, correctly but with more conviction than I can muster, that the decision by Chancellor Wise not to send Salaita’s contract to the Board of Trustees, indeed, the decision to terminate his hire, violates the principle of faculty governance. The action against Salaita has all the appearance of being arbitrary, and it’s my guess that the administration should have allowed this hire to go through, if not for the professor’s sake and for the politics he represents, then for the sake of the university-institution itself. Just like when Nazis marched in Skokie, perhaps now this should be a matter left for the courts to decide.

[2] Politically, it’s unsurprising that the hire got gummed up and terminated. While, normatively, the process should have been separate from the professor’s obnoxious political presence on social media, the obnoxious content is not wholly separable in practice. No doubt there was intense donor pressure on UIUC, about which you can read here.  But supporters of BDS cannot readily complain when donors, in this case Jewish ones, threaten to stop contributing financially to universities for political reasons. The donors are only doing with greater economic muscle and political effect what Salaita and his many of his supporters would like to do in terms of impacting university discourse about Israel-Palestine, and trying to hold an administration to account.

[3] Morally, I would not want to overlook the bright red lines against abusive speech that contributes to the coarsening of public discourse and to the creation of hostile intellectual environments. While the reflex to defend Salaita as a free speech principle is understandable, it may be hard to work up any broad sympathy beyond a relatively limited circle of faculty colleagues opposed politically to the Chancellor’s decision and of free-speech purists arguing the controversy on its legal merits. But these don’t touch upon the other question, which I think is moral. If anyone wrote this way about or addressed Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians, vilifying broad sectors of an entire community for its political commitments, he would have found his head on a platter, and rightly so. The offer and then revocation at Brandeis University of an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tars with a harsh broad brush Islam as political ideology and as culture, would be a recent and relevant example.

The Salaita case brings up important questions about online media and legal-moral discourse. To what degree can it be said that a person’s tweets represent a persona in some sense separate from his professional behavior? And to what degree is an online persona fundamentally inseparable from one’s professional life? The way in which Salaita has comported himself online throws down all kinds of red flags, for which he himself is ultimately responsible, morally if not legally and politically. While much of the debate has centered around civility and skewering Chancellor Wise’s remarks about civility, I think the more pertinent question has to do with abusiveness, which was also included in Chancellor Wise’s statement, but which has gone largely ignored. What are the lines drawn, the lines we draw between free speech, critical speech, uncivil speech, obnoxious speech, all of which it is our obligation to protect, versus abusive speech and hate speech?

It’s for these reasons that I would leave this decision about Salaita’s employment to the courts. Politically and morally, I think he is the wrong person to get behind, and in the end his expression does a lot of harm to the cause of Palestine and to the cause of faculty governance. While I understand that personally one might want to have nothing to do with UIUC until this case is resolved in a way one finds satisfactory, I do not see how this scandal should rise to the level that would of necessity justify either the boycott of UIUC as an institution or, for that matter, the decision by supporters of Israel to stop donating to the university.

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Artificial Mountain Rock (Zhan Wang)

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A couple of weeks back, I ran across these these two Fake Mountain Rocks enclosed in the glass atrium space at Madison Avenue. By Zhan Wang, they riff off the traditional, decorative rocks placed in scholars’ gardens. An excellent article, which you can read here by Wu Hong reflects upon Zhan’s work in terms of traditional culture and simulacral objects in contemporary China. Heedless of the binary between the authentic and the faze these supersized and expensive polished stainless steel things are the simulacra of a simulacrum, i.e. the mountain rock placed in a private green space. Zhan’s  post-traditional figures have been given the sheer physical presence to stand out and maintain themselves in the hyper-modern urban metropolis. Simply on their own terms, they are molten and beautiful. It’s their complete irregularity that sustains our attention.

Wu Hong writes,  “We must realize that to Zhan Wang, ‘glittering surface, ostentatious glamour, and illusory appearance’ are not necessarily bad qualities, and that his stainless-steel rocks are definitely not designed as satire or mockery of contemporary material culture. Rather, both the original rockeries and his copies are material forms selected or created for people’s spiritual needs; their different materiality suits different needs at different times. The problem he addresses is thus one of authenticity: Which rock- the original or his copy- more genuinely reflects contemporary Chinese culture? Interestingly, the Chinese call natural rockeries jia shan shi, or “fake mountain rocks.” According to Zhan Wang, such rocks, even if made of real stones, have truly become “fakes” when used to decorate a contemporary environment. But his stainless-steel rocks, though artificial, signify the “genuine” of our own time.”

 

 

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War Memorial (Carrol Park, Brooklyn)

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Maybe I’m getting older, but I don’t find war memorials like this one in Carrol Park, Brooklyn jingoistic. Erected in 1921, now in the middle of a playground and public space, it has a common-man kind of feel. Local, it’s dedicated to soldiers and sailors from the district. I like the over the shoulder look of the sailor in the the last posted photograph.

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Jewish Philosophy New York City Brisket

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The good news is that it may just be the case that there’s no need to go to Texas for Texas brisket. You can get it here and maybe even better in New York City, with more creative and lighter sides than the grotesque mayo laden coleslaw and lumpy potato salad that comes standard with the fare. But more to the point, somewhere between serious and semi-serious, this article in the New York Times about the local emergent brisket scene in New York spoke to my Jewish philosophy palette. What’s the ta’am of Jewish philosophy? Why can’t it  write like this work, taste like this, with the same attention to material and process, local style, and an image of perfection, with the same artisanal craft?

Jewish philosophy could look like “smoky meat topped with wobbly, savory fat, rimmed with a lip-numbing crust of coarse black pepper. ‘It’s a small number of things to get right,” he said, “and I am haunted by all of them.’ “”  It needs to start cooking at a lower temperature, coaxing a lighter smoke flavor into the meat, using prime-grade beef“  with “a dash or two of New York experimentalism: Pennsylvania Dutch potato rolls, Vietnamese rice paper, or biodynamic or natural wines.

None of this is easy. Like brisket, Jewish philosophy is “particularly difficult cut to cook, a thick clump of fat, muscle, connective tissue and collagen that, under perfect conditions, combine into supple, beefy perfection. For professionals, the greatest challenge is consistency, making sure that each brisket comes out identically.”

It requires slow cooking, Jewish philosophy is best done “when it hits a certain temperature. Yes, the meat will be cooked through at 180 degrees. It will also be fibrous, and webbed with chewy, sticky collagen. A brisket needs to spend a certain amount of time — just how long depends on the individual cut — at that temperature, as the fat renders into drippiness and the collagen turns to gelatin. Meat that feels tough after 10 hours may be perfect at 12. Be patient...Mr. Laracuente, the Hometown pitmaster, says that cooking meat in the dark of night, stoking the fires and communing with the briskets are surprisingly satisfying compared with other kitchen jobs he’s held. “Cooking is science, but barbecue is magic,” he said.”

To model this kind of thinking, start with Leviticus. Or perhaps one could identify two types of Jewish philosophy, flat-philosophy and point-philosophy, based on two types of muscle that characterize the brisket.  “A whole brisket consists of two distinct muscles, usually separated into what butchers call the flat and the point.” There’s always the one kind of Jewish philosophy. “The flat, or first cut, is too lean to barbecue on its own; braised, it makes a nice pot roast.” I have nothing against pot roast, but I’d rather have a Jewish philosophy that tastes like “The point, or second cut, [which] must be attached for barbecue, along with the sheath of fat that covers the whole cut.

 

 

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