Ever since the news broke on Aug. 6 that Steven Salaita’s faculty appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) had been terminated due to tweets critical of Israel, the most prominent expert voice—indeed, the only expert mainstream voice—to emerge in support of the university’s decision has been UIUC English professor Cary Nelson.
Nelson’s reputation as an advocate of academic freedom, having lectured and written at length on the subject and having served as the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has made him the go-to voice on the Salaita affair in reports featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, CNN, HuffPost Live, and elsewhere.
But last January, I wrote a lengthy study of Cary Nelson’s stance toward academic boycotts and Palestine/Israel, calling into question his ability to professionally assess issues of academic freedom when the region is involved.
As a follow-up to that piece, I shall demonstrate that Nelson’s authority to speak about Salaita’s termination is compromised on several counts:
- Nelson’s history of direct political opposition to Salaita, specifically on the issue of Israel and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions).
- Nelson’s undisclosed communications with the instigator of the attacks against Salaita—William Jacobson of the Legal Insurrection blog—specifically on the issue of Salaita.
- Nelson’s membership, and even leadership, in organizations that seek to “strengthen the pro-Israel movement on campus,” “advocate on behalf of the State of Israel,” and counter “the far left’s attacks on Israel.”
- Nelson’s now-contradictory stances on academic freedom that have even compelled the AAUP to distance itself from his comments.
- Nelson’s unfamiliarity with Twitter, which has led him to make embarrassingly ill-informed accusations.
- Nelson’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of any interpretation of Salaita’s tweets other than his own, leading to a refusal to argue for his interpretation.
- Nelson’s failure to disclose—and even his refusal to disclose at times—the conflicts of interest detailed above before offering a supposedly professional opinion on the matter.
This study is broken into two parts. Here in Part One, I focus on the accusations and misinterpretations made by Nelson against Salaita’s tweets. Tomorrow, in Part Two, I will situate Cary Nelson’s role in the larger anti-BDS campaign for which Salaita is being targeted.
Part One is broken into several sections:
- Tweet 1: Salaita’s “anti-Semitism”
- Tweet 2: Jeffrey Goldberg’s “shiv”
- Tweet 3: Settlers “going missing”
- Tweet 4: Value judgment against supporters of Israel’s war on Gaza
- Nelson’s defense of an “ethnic cleansing” advocate
- Nelson’s unfamiliarity with Twitter
- Conclusion to Part One
In the course of this study, I sought a phone interview with Cary Nelson to give him the opportunity to respond to the issues I present below. He declined my request, so I emailed him a list of nine questions. Of those nine, Nelson responded to seven, from which I quote where appropriate.
• • •
In response to the initial Inside Higher Ed article that broke the story of Salaita’s termination, Cary Nelson submitted a comment to clarify what he found objectionable with Salaita’s tweets. Nelson’s comment stated the following:
[Inside Higher Ed] is interpreting my comments about Salaita to embody issues of “collegiality and civility.” I did not use those terms in anything I wrote about him and would not do so. Indeed I think it would be trivializing his social media presence to characterize it as uncollegial.
When Salaita tweets “If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class.
When he gives us this definition—“Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” he crosses a line into hate speech.
When he retweets a suggestion that a well-known American reporter should be met with “the point of a shiv” he crosses a line into inciting violence.
Nelson repeated these claims in subequent outlets, and so I take them to be representative of Nelson’s criticisms of Salaita’s tweets.
Below, I examine what Cary Nelson suggests to be the four most damning tweets made by Steven Salaita, using Nelson’s own criteria:
- One tweet which Nelson claims is anti-Semitic
- Two tweets which Nelson claims are incitement to violence
- One tweet which Nelson claims creates an unsafe environment for students to excel academically(!)
The remaining tweets cited by Nelson are ones that he refers to as “sophomoric” and “bombastic.” As Nelson insists that “collegiality and civility” are not the issue here, I will skip them.
One caveat before proceeding: According to conventional understandings of academic freedom in the US, none of these tweets could be held against Salaita even if Nelson’s interpretations of them were true.
But by challenging Nelson’s interpetations of the tweets, I seek to demonstrate that Nelson is deliberately misleading the public and that the tweets would not be objectionable even by Nelson’s own standards. I also seek to rectify Nelson’s unwarranted attacks on Salaita’s charcter. Yet at no point below do I suggest that Nelson’s standards are legitimate or that the tweets could have violated academic freedom.
Let’s examine what is allegedly the most offensive tweet—the one which Salaita’s detractors claim to be an endorsement of anti-Semitism as something “honorable”:
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
Despite the attempts of Nelson and others to spin this as apologetics for anti-Semitism, many people, such as political commentator Marc Lamont Hill and CUNY professor Corey Robin, have interpreted the tweet to mean just the opposite. In order to make the best assessment of this tweet, we must recognize it as part of a series of tweets that Salaita had sent within a narrow time period. Two minutes before the tweet in question, Salaita tweeted the following:
Here, Salaita criticizes the tendency of Israel supporters to label critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. Salaita believes that a “person of conscience” has no choice but to endure being labeled anti-Semitic if that is a consequence of “deplor[ing] colonization, land theft, and child murder.”
It is only then—within two minutes—that he follows up the tweet with the one that Nelson and others single out:
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
That is, the term “anti-Semitism” has been distorted by Zionists into a label hurled against those engaged in something as “honorable” as “deplor[ing] colonization, land theft, and child murder.”
Three hours later, Michael Hessel-Mial, a self-proclaimed “Jewish anti-Zionist” expresses uncertainty or concern over the meaning of Salaita’s original tweet:
Salaita responds to Hessel-Mial by clarifying that “the discourses of Zionism … cheapen anti-Semitism by likening it to principled stands against state violence”:
@mikehesselmial By attacking the discourses of Zionism that cheapen anti-Semitism by likening it to principled stands against state violence
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
That is, if it was unclear before, Salaita’s use of the word “honorable” was not referring to the idea of anti-Jewish oppression (the traditional meaning of anti-Semitism) but instead to “principled stands against state violence,” which were now being inappropriately labeled—and hence “cheapened”—by Zionists as “anti-Semitism.”
Hessel-Mial tags Salaita’s response as a “favorite” and replies that he “can get behind that.” Salaita immediately follows up with another tweet, again addressed to Hessel-Mial:
Taken in the full context, one cannot possibly construe that Salaita was endorsing anti-Semitism.
However, plucking this tweet from its context and embedding it in an article that describes Salaita and his tweets as “inflammatory,” “loathsome,” “sophomoric,” “irresponsible,” “bombastic,” “anti-Semitic,” “vehemen[t],” “outrageous,” and “crosses the line into anti-Semitism”—as Cary Nelson’s article in Inside Higher Ed does—in the context of a job termination that implies that Salaita had done something wrong—an unaware audience may be prepped to accept the tweet to be what Nelson and other opponents of Salaita want it to be—an unadulterated endorsement of anti-Semitism—rather than what it is: much ado about nothing.
I quoted to Nelson the additional tweets and asked him whether it was appropriate to isolate one tweet and interpret it to mean the opposite of what it was clearly meant to convey. His response:
My main context for his tweets—and I believe it’s the key one—are his published writings, both in print and on line.
Yet neither in print nor online does Salaita make any endorsements for anti-Semitism. In fact he does the opposite (for an example in print, see Israel’s Dead Soul, pp. 15–16). If it is true that Nelson has carefully examined Salaita’s tweeting record, surely he must have seen the tweets reproduced above, as well as the following tweets sent in the same time period, which profess a universalist respect for all peoples:
#ISupportGaza because I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 24, 2014
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 18, 2014
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 23, 2014
Salaita has also taken on anti-Semitism, as when the rapper Macklemore wore a disguise that resembled anti-Semitic tropes:
The problem w/#Macklemore‘s defense is that his costume, even if random (yeah right), IS a stereotype; stupidity doesn’t mitigate ignorance.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 20, 2014
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 20, 2014
The existence of these tweets, which Nelson refuses to acknowledge, contradict his claim to Ali Abunimah that “The total effect [of Salaita’s tweets] seems to me to cross a line.”
I asked Nelson why he didn’t take such tweets into account. As I expressed it to him:
Rather than one tweet invalidating another, don’t these tweet[s], taken as a whole, contextualize one another? And if so, isn’t it misleading to cherry-pick individual tweets, thus taking them out of context?
Nelson did not respond. However, in response to a separate question I posed, which I will detail later, Nelson claimed that “Tweets are not just elements of a conversation; they are also coherent individual statements.”
Thus Nelson, a professor of English, not only demands that tweets become part of an academic’s “professional profile,” but he arbitrarily demands that each individual 140-character tweet stand on its own as a “coherent individual statement”—rather than be considered in the context of other tweets or of events that may have transpired at the time of the tweet—despite the fact that elsewhere Nelson faults Salaita’s tweets for their “total effect.”
By Nelson’s strictures, the only way a tweet may be interpreted is by itself and in its most literal sense. (As I shall demonstrate later, Nelson violates his own strictures when it suits him.)
This idea that “tweets are not just elements of a conversation” but are “coherent individual statements” also contradicts Nelson’s earlier assertion that he had found “context for [Salaita’s] tweets” in “his published writings, both in print and on line.”
Subsequently, having been misled by critics such as Nelson, liberal Zionist commentator Mira Sucharov tweeted me and others to condemn what she believed to be Salaita’s praise of anti-Semitism as something “honorable”:
— Mira Sucharov (@sucharov) August 8, 2014
Sucharov’s obsession with the word “honorable” compelled me to look at how else Salaita has employed that term.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 12, 2014
In this tweet, Salaita says that “FIFA is an honorable organization” in order to say that FIFA is not an honorable organization. To achieve this effect, he employs a special device known in Twitter jargon as “irony.” Example #2:
“I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” –John Chivington — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 26, 2014
Here we must rely on street smarts to discern that Salaita does not quote the leader of the Sand Creek massacre approvingly.
However, if one were to cite this tweet in an article that suggested that Salaita was fired because of bigoted tweets and calls for violence, then one could mistakenly assume that Salaita was actually sending the tweet as a threat.
Both examples demonstrate that one cannot always interpret tweets literally and that they can be easily taken out of context—and I profess amazement at having to spell it out.
Let’s turn to the second of Salaita’s “bad” tweets, which was not a tweet by Salaita himself but a “retweet” from someone else:
Jeffrey goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv
— Free Palestine (@djkilllist) July 7, 2014
In his comment in Inside Higher Ed, Cary Nelson describes the tweet—and slightly misquotes it—as follows:
When [Salaita] retweets a suggestion that a well-known American reporter should be met with “the point of a shiv” he crosses a line into inciting violence.
Two days later, in his own article in Inside Higher Ed, Nelson writes:
Academic freedom protects [Salaita] from university reprisals for his extramural speech, unless he appears to be inciting violence, which one retweeted remark that a well-known American reporter wrote a story that “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv” appears to do.
First we must tackle the issue of “retweeting,” which is someone reposting someone else’s tweet. There are many reasons why someone might retweet, perhaps the most common of which are:
- To post a tweet that one agrees with.
- To post a tweet that one disagrees with.
- To post a tweet that one wants to draw attention to, but is not necessarily an endorsement of the tweet.
- To post a tweet that one intends to respond to.
Thus it is irresponsible to claim that a retweet is the equivalent of one’s own tweet.
Moreover, a retweeter’s interpretation of a tweet may differ from the original tweeter’s intention. Because there are so many possibilities, we would have to ask Salaita himself what he meant by retweeting the tweet rather than condemn him for it. In his absence, however, we can play the worst-case scenario to demonstrate that the even the worst case is not as bad as Nelson claims.
First, Nelson refuses to identify Jeffrey Goldberg as the subject of the tweet, referring to him merely as “a well-known American reporter.” Yet Goldberg’s identity is key to the meaning of the tweet, as the tweet refers to a “shiv,” which is prison lingo for a blade. During the first intifada, Goldberg served as an Israeli prison guard, the story of which he recounted in his book Prisoners—and thus “shiv” is a reference to Goldberg’s prison-guard stint.
However, comparing Nelson’s two statements above and an additional statement he gave to CBS, it seems that even he is unclear whether the “shiv” would have been intended for Goldberg or for a story that Goldberg wrote:
1. a well-known American reporter should be met with “the point of a shiv” [Aug. 6]
2. a well-known American reporter wrote a story that “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv” [Aug.8]
3. [Goldberg’s] articles should be met on the point of a shiv [quoted on Aug. 7—all emphases mine]
This leaves one to ask how taking a knife to an article constitutes “incitement to violence.”
Again, taking the worst-case scenario, let’s assume the shiv was meant for Goldberg himself and not for his articles. Goldberg served as an Israeli prison guard more than twenty tears ago, and the tweet refers to the past (“should have ended”), not the present or the future.
Thus even if we take the tweet literally, it can only be construed as “inciting violence” if incitement could be performed retroactively. Taking these factors into account, we can measure the degrees of separation from an actual incitement to violence:
- Time: Historical—over twenty years ago
- Level of intent: A wish (“should have”)
- Target: Inconclusive—an Israeli prison guard, the story of the Israeli prison guard, or
- Agent: The person whom Salaita was retweeting from.
One would need to sidestep all these factors in order to conclude that Steven Salaita was even remotely inciting violence through a retweet of someone else who expressed a wish for Goldberg—or Goldberg’s story or articles—to have ended with a “shiv” over twenty years ago.
Whereas the first and second tweets might be bad if they truly meant what Salaita’s detractors claim they mean (praise for anti-Semitism and a “horrible veiled threat”), this third “bad tweet” is so silly that I considered excluding it—except that I would then be accused of ignoring an inconvenient tweet, so here goes:
You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing. — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 20, 2014
Nelson describes the tweet as such:
His June 19 response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers—“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”—also invokes a violent response to the occupation, since “go missing” refers to kidnapping.
Is expressing a “wish” that all West Bank settlers “go missing” truly “invok[ing] a violent response”—and more importantly, does it even matter?
After all, if Salaita had expressed a “wish” that the Israeli military eliminate Hamas, would it have caused as much consternation for Nelson? If a professor tweets in support of one war or another, would that not be “invok[ing] a violent response” in Nelson’s eyes, and would that be wrong? (This is not a hypothetical musing, as shall be seen in the section below on Cary Nelson’s support for Benny Morris.)
And once we ask these questions, is it not becoming clearer that citing this tweet as a potential threat is a stretch, and that it is a desperate attempt to find an excuse to shun Salaita?
At the very least, the appearance of this tweet as a late addenedum to the list of “hateful tweets” prepared by William Jacobson (whom Nelson had been communicating with) suggests that Nelson was not even aware of the tweet until someone pointed it out to him after Salaita’s firing. Thus one might suspect the tweet is being cited as retroactive justification for the firing.
Once again, Nelson commands only one possible interpretation for this tweet. Whereas before Nelson demanded that Salaita’s tweets be taken literally, here Nelson demands extrapolation: One must read “go missing” as a euphemism for kidnapping and nothing else.
But if “‘go missing’ refers to kidnapping,” why didn’t Salaita just write “kidnap”? After all, he prefaced his statement with the warning that it was “unrefined” and described the settlers with the expletive “fucking.” Why then, after all the build-up, would he resort to a euphemism?
Moreover, if Salaita had actually wished for the West Bank settlers to be kidnapped, would Nelson find it any worse than a wish for settlers to “drop dead” or “go jump off a cliff”?
By demonstrating the unlikelihood of Nelson’s reading, have I conclusively established Salaita’s intent? No, but neither does Nelson—an English professor—who imposes only one possible interpetation, which, even if correct, does not approach anywhere near a death threat or praise for anti-Semitism.
On strict legal grounds, it should be noted that Nelson’s two “incitement to violence” tweets do not pass the test for imminent lawless action established in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which requires the offending speech to be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and “likely to incite or produce such action.”
The final “bad tweet” under consideration is this:
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 9, 2014
As the tweet was sent on July 9, the “right now” most likely refers to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip. This is how Nelson describes the problem:
When Salaita tweets “If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” he issues a judgment about his future students that would justify them believing they would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class …
First, Salaita had already indicated that he had no problem debating the issue of Palestine/Israel with those he disagreed with, and that he even “sometimes enjoy the arguments”:
I can banter with Zionists, left or right. I sometimes enjoy the arguments. But if you justify the murder of children, BLLLLOOOOOOCK. — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 21, 2014
Admittedly he draws the line on justifying the killing of children, but that is a low bar to overcome.
My rather crude moral calculus: never kill a child to profit or to make a point. In fact, don’t kill a child for any reason. #Gaza
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 26, 2014
More importantly, however, Cary Nelson’s criticism of the tweet abandons academic freedom altogether in favor of keeping students “safe” from fears of what a teacher might be engaged in outside of the classroom.
The argument is spurious. After all, would a professor who frequently tweets contempt for Republicans instill unnecessary fear in students who might believe they would be penalized for expressing pro-Republican views?
In fact, it is telling that Nelson does not even pay any attention to Salaita’s tweets against Republicans:
The “USA! USA!” chant is inherently obnoxious, but it would be more tolerable if it wasn’t also used to cheer air strikes and Republicans. — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 23, 2014
Republicans are free marketers for the poor, but socialists for the affluent.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 2, 2014
I hate people who adopt a politics based largely (or solely) on their economic interests. It’s the very definition of self-indulgence. — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 2, 2014
@DianaValerie TBH, I mostly had in mind preppy Republican douchebags, lol.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 2, 2014
I asked Nelson if Salaita’s anti-Republican tweets would pose a problem for Republican students. His response:
This is too speculative and general. Each case is different. But I could easily find anti-Arab tweets objectionable.
The problem with this answer is that it offers no guidelines with which to apply Nelson’s revised ideas of academic freedom. If “each case is different,” and if there are no guidelines, then one has no means to judge whether a social media comment that is addressed to a vague “You” somewhere out there in the Twitterverse will make a student too uncomfortable to function academically—that is, except by Nelson’s own personal judgment.
And according to Nelson’s personal judgment, we only have two examples to go by: Steven Salaita’s tweet and a claim that Nelson “could easily find anti-Arab tweets objectionable.”
But even the “anti-Arab tweet” test is not guaranteed, as can be seen in the case of Benny Morris.
In his book No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, Nelson offered an anecdote about how the Israeli ultranationalist historian Benny Morris had been rejected from consideration for a faculty position:
On yet another major research university campus, a faculty member was severely chastised and financially penalized for arguing on behalf of Israeli scholar (and admittedly polemical public intellectual) Benny Morris for a position in a Middle East studies department and against the less widely published pro-Palestinian scholar whom the search committee had recommended.
Nelson found the rejection of Morris unfair, stating that
While Morris’s increasing conservatism is not in doubt … neither is his status as a major historian in question … His appointment would be a coup for any university.
I mentioned this story in my previous piece on Nelson, and I pointed out that “increasing conservatism” was an understatement: Morris had publicly endorsed “ethnic cleansing”—both of Arabs from the land of Palestine, and of Native peoples from the Americas—on the grounds that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs … There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds.”
Later, in his book One State, Two States, Morris made the fatuous claim that Muslim Arabs possessed an alien “mindset” that made them more likely than Jews to commit crimes, including rape—and he attempted to ground this claim on a clearly skewed interpretation of Israeli police statistics.
Unlike Salaita, Morris publicly embraced ethnic chauvinism and ethnic cleansing, and he based his racism on poor scholarship. Citing these examples, I asked Nelson how he could justify Salaita’s firing for reasons that would be more compelling in the case of Benny Morris, whom Nelson had defended.
Nelson’s response was, in its entirety: “I admire Benny Morris’ books.”
It should be noted that this response was expressed to me by Nelson immediately following his claim that he “could easily find anti-Arab tweets objectionable.”
Throughout his comments on Salaita’s tweets, there is an impression that Cary Nelson is clueless about Twitter as a medium for social interaction—perhaps willfully so. Thus I posed the question to Nelson:
Am I correct in assuming you don’t have a Twitter account yourself? I ask because just reading tweets, without participating in the medium itself, does not give one a clear idea of how this form of online communication works. Thus someone who is not on Twitter is less likely to understand the nature and context of tweets—both how they are formulated and how they are read by others on Twitter.
I do not have a twitter account. But I have visited [Salaita]’s twitter page 3 times. Tweets are not just elements of a conversation; they are also coherent individual statements.
One hopes that Nelson is aware that a 140-character limit does impose barriers to “coherent individual statements.” It is not uncommon for tweeters to express an idea through a series of tweets, as Salaita has done in some of the examples I provided earlier. Moreover any regular Twitter user will attest to the prevalence of unintentional misinterpretation as a result of Twitter’s technical limitations. Twitter is not a medium responsive to nuance.
However, to truly appreciate Nelson’s unfamiliarity with Twitter, one can examine a recent video interview of Nelson by Marc Lamont Hill on HuffPost Live, wherein Nelson accuses Salaita’s Twitter usage of being
… obsessive. So sometimes he tweets several times a day. He’s been doing it for months …
To me “uncivil” isn’t enough [to merit penalty]. People have the right to vent and be uncivil sometimes, and I’ll defend faculty members for being uncivil … Part of what’s at stake is the obsessive-compulsive character of this activity and the relentless character of it. [My emphases]
This leads to an amusing exchange between Hill and Nelson:
HILL: You talk about the “obsessiveness” of it … Looking at his Twitter page … it doesn’t seem to me that he tweets any more often than the average person.
NELSON: That’s because over the weekend, he eliminated almost all of his tweets.
HILL: But even what he has left. I mean, nine, ten-thousand tweets over the course of a few years doesn’t strike me as—even if it were twice that. I mean, I tweet ten, twenty times a day. I’m not sure I’d call it obsessive…
NELSON: Are you telling me you have a full-time job and you can still do that?
HILL: Yeah, I work here [at HuffPost Live] and I’m a full-time faculty member, and I still manage to do it … “Compulsive” might also strike me as an unfair characterization.
NELSON: Maybe. I mean, I’m making a value judgment and, you know, that’s my impression. But, you know, I’m not gonna, you know, guarantee that I’m correct. But when I say he’s obsessive, it’s the repeated tweeting at great length over the Arab–Israeli conflict—with repeated profanity, with a high degree of anger, with tweets that cross a line into unacceptable discourse.
First, Nelson’s claim that Salaita had “eliminated almost all of his tweets”—which he declared with some smugness on the video—is untrue. I compared Salaita’s current Twitter page to archived versions and could find no discernible difference in quantity. Moreover, all of Salaita’s tweets that Nelson cites are still visible on his account.I asked Nelson to explain how he concluded that Salaita had gone on a tweet-deleting spree, and I also asked him if he knew of any tweets that Salaita had deleted. Nelson did not answer.
Second, Nelson sought to criticize Salaita’s “obsessive-compulsive character” by nothing that he “sometimes … tweets several times a day,” unaware that that is typical Twitter practice.
Third, after expressing surprise that Hill tweets ten to twenty times a day, Nelson adjusts his argument:
when I say he’s obsessive, it’s the repeated tweeting at great length over the Arab–Israeli conflict—with repeated profanity, with a high degree of anger, with tweets that cross a line into unacceptable discourse.
So here, the obsessiveness relates to a claim of incivility, though earlier Nelson stated that incivility was not the issue. Recall the comment Nelson made in Inside Higher Ed:
Actually, [Inside Higher Ed] is interpreting my comments about Salaita to embody issues of “collegiality and civility.” I did not use those terms in anything I wrote about him and would not do so. Indeed I think it would be trivializing his social media presence to characterize it as uncollegial.
Though Nelson claims Salaita had “crossed a line” into hate speech and incitement to violence, I have demonstrated that those claims are baseless. By evoking “profanity” and “a high degree of anger,” Nelson actually hoped to blur the line between incivility and hate speech in the absence of identifiable hate speech.
When Inside Higher Ed emailed Cary Nelson for comments on the Salaita termination, Nelson “emailed back two answers,” he told me, “both of which they published in their entirety in their news story.” Nelson’s quotes in Inside Higher Ed consisted of about seven sentences, wherein he managed to cram in the following descriptors of Salaita’s tweets to justify UIUC’s decision:
loathsome and foul-mouthed
hostility to Israel
extremist and uncivil
hostility to Israel (used twice)
And yet Nelson would later claim that he was not talking about “collegiality and civility.” When put to the test, Nelson failed to identify an instance of hate speech except for a tweet that was actually critical of anti-Semitism. He failed to find incitement to violence. He failed to offer consistent guidelines for “student-safe” tweeting.
What he has managed to do, however, is attack Salaita’s character by publicly accusing Salaita of disseminating hatred and bigotry. Such claims, however unsubstaniated, have a permanance on the internet. Regardless of whether Salaita finds justice, he may be forever branded as the hate-filled anti-Semitic professor.
Nelson can alleviate some of the harm by publicly apologizing and admitting that Salaita never considered anti-Semitism to be honorable. Yet Nelson refused to acknowledge it when I brought it up with him, as well as when Marc Lamont Hill brought it up.
Moreover, the controversy surrounding Salaita’s termination—coupled with Nelson’s selective dissemination of tweets out of context but coupled with descriptors such as “inflammatory,” “loathsome,” “sophomoric,” “irresponsible,” “bombastic,” “anti-Semitic,” “vehemen[t],” and “outrageous”—have fostered a false impression that such tweets constitute the whole of Steven Salaita’s Twitter presence.
Contrary to Nelson’s findings, what I found in Salaita’s twitter timeline is no less colorful than most other twitter timelines, with wit:
The secret to excellent mtabbal (baba ghannoush) is to roast the eggplant over charcoal (real charcoal, not that match light bullshit). — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 23, 2014
a surprisingly endearing conversation about his son’s penis:
Actual convo with my 25mo: Him: NOO! MY PENIS! NOOOO! Me: Son, I’m just putting on your diaper. I PROMISE your penis isn’t going anywhere.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 11, 2014
and a willingness to engage with people outside the confines of Twitter:
@johnellsmar In a sense, yes, but there’s more complexity to the dynamics at work here. Happy to discuss it offline anytime.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
Having established that Steven Salaita’s twitter history is not what Cary Nelson projects it to be, we can proceed to investigate the real reasons behind the campaign against Salaita, which will be discussed tomorrow in Part Two.