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Stanley Fish and the violence of neutrality

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Now that the American Studies Association (ASA) has had its say with the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the expected backlash has been loud and furious.  It is pointless to challenge that backlash using the conventions of intelligent debate, because there is little in the backlash that demonstrates intelligence.  It’s often difficult to tell whether opponents of the resolution are making an argument or trying to figure out what the fox says.

We shouldn’t ignore the backlash, however.  By examining its language and assumptions, we acquire greater understanding of how Zionism functions in the institutional spaces that both inform and comprise state power.  Of particular interest is the complicity (or centrality) of liberal Zionism in the durability of colonial values that sustain Indigenous dispossession from the Americas to Palestine.

The ASA boycott resolution, simply put, has washed away the bullshit, forcing people to answer to their actual beliefs.  Opponents of the resolution have appealed not to ethics or to intellectual rigor, but to the authority of the educational and economic elite.  This tells us all we need to know about the bankruptcy of their position.  It also illustrates how Zionism embodies the colonialist mentality that has guided American universities since their inception.

Stanley Fish in particular exemplifies the problems of liberal authority vis-à-vis boycott of Israel.

Boycott Supporters:  Agents of Genocide

Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish

One of my colleagues recently asked the New York Times op-ed editor to consider publishing a piece supportive of the ASA boycott resolution.  The editor explained that he has no interest in the ASA resolution.  It might be useful, then, for him to have a word with Fish, who lately appears unable to discuss anything else.

Fish has apparently written his last piece as a regular Times blogger.  That he chose to spend it on the resolution illustrates how bothersome boycott has been to scholars of a particular disposition.  This type of scholar adores the common sense of disinterested logic, for he cannot see past the many benefits granted to him by the status quo he helped construct.  (Nor will he ever concede the existence of those benefits.)  People of color and the colonized must remain invisible for this logic to function.

Supporters of the ASA resolution, Fish argues,

reason that a boycott is justified because as the result of Israel’s actions, “Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, and scholars and students deported.”  I quote from a statement by the American Studies Association, which just a few days ago endorsed the boycott and did so in the name of academic freedom, defined (correctly) by the statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.”  Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies.  Or, in other words (my words), “the state of Israel has done bad things to the Palestinians and therefore we should do bad things to Israeli universities.”

Advocates of boycott, Fish boasts, provide “a good example of the kind of bad argument I like to skewer.”

It’s really too bad that Fish chooses to skewer an argument nobody has made.  He rather seems to be bickering with the onset of an unacknowledged sociopathy.

Consider what Fish is saying: advocates of boycott are equivalent in deed and action to the practices of the State of Israel.  Fish either severely misunderstands Israel’s brutal mistreatment of Palestinians or he is so desperate to defend Israel’s honor that he reduces genocide to a paltry academic disagreement.

Either way, his logic is deeply violent.  (It is also factually incorrect:  Palestine is not yet a state—certainly not in the way Israel is a state, which further undermines Fish’s appeals to equivalency.)

That’s the thing about the liberal authority Fish represents: it pretends to be neutral and rational and virtuous.  Its primary function, in fact, is to maintain that pretense.  But such liberal authority has always been thoroughly violent to the communities that had to be erased in order for academia to achieve the enlightened modernity for which it was manifestly destined.

Fish treats Palestinian dispossession as an intellectual game.  Never does their mere humanity enter his mind.  Never does he consider their suffering, their demonization, their persecution, their simple desire for the most human of all aspirations, freedom.

To Palestinians, freedom means the absence of military occupation and the agency that can be exercised through self-determination.  To Fish, freedom is something altogether different:  the ability to silence the wretched beasts on whose backs he finds a perch to share with the world his exceptional gift of erudition.

Fish’s logic is older than the United States, consistently found in the language of august white men who abhor not being in charge.  He ignores tons of scholarship on decolonization to make a brutally anachronistic point.  Why should he consult that scholarship?  He long ago declared himself the arbiter of Ideas That Matter through his blog at the Times, which he earned in part by being unwilling to communicate anything more than clichés adorned with high-minded language.

The Cost of Free Speech

Years ago, Fish famously argued that there’s no such thing as free speech; free speech, he theorized, is merely what a society collectively decides to accept as appropriate.  Discussion of Israeli colonization has never been appropriate in the United States.  Speech on behalf of Palestine, then, is nowhere close to free.  It has cost many people jobs, promotions, reputations, and livelihoods.

Fish’s theory is instructive.  It is the powerful who decide on behalf of the collective.  Societies do not adhere to rules of acceptable speech based on organic interchange, but on the preferences of the ruling class and its elite constituents.  This stuff isn’t new.  Antonio Gramsci analyzed it (with more sophistication than Fish) nearly a hundred years ago.

Yet we continue to grapple with questions about how best to challenge the commonplaces of mainstream debate, especially in situations in which mainstream political norms do not cohere with the realities of anti-colonial struggle.  (Norman Finkelstein, notably, has grappled with this question, ultimately deciding that satisfying the fickle sensibilities of liberal Zionists is more important than justice for Palestinians.)

One’s adherence to the norms of ruling class discourse often determines how far he or she advances through the hierarchies of public commentary.  Fish’s faithful adherence to those rules through the years has served him well in becoming the highbrow version of Christopher Hitchens.  He was able to diagnose the incongruities of free speech, but has never been willing to challenge the structures of power that determine the freedom or suppression of certain ideas.

His consistent rationale for his rhetorical cowardice has been the conceit of neutrality.  Take, for instance, this passage from his latest piece:  “[T]he substantive question that will be of interest to many readers:  who, generally, is in the right or wrong, the Palestinians or the Israelis?  The answer to that question has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether a boycott of Israeli universities can be justified.”

Of all the arguments made against the ASA resolution, this is by far the most depraved.  Fish would have us believe that it just doesn’t matter who is doing wrong.  These are trifling questions, the domain of agitators and politicos who don’t deal, like Stanley Fish does, with Big Ideas.

The answer to the question Fish dare not contemplate is quite simple based on indisputable evidence of every conceivable variety:  the Israelis are “in the wrong,” though nobody but Fish speaks in such juvenile absolutes.  In reality, the substantive question has nothing to do with rightness and wrongness vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.  The substantive question—indeed, the only question that matters—is whether boycott is an appropriate response to Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian academic freedom.

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Moral Judgments

The nadir of Fish’s argument arrives when he proclaims, “Moral judgments are often necessary, but they are not always necessary, and sometimes the better part of wisdom is to refrain from making them because they get in the way of conceptual clarity.”

Who but a man flush with the arrogance of his own virtue would make such an absurd declaration?

People of color and other rabble-rousers make “moral judgments”; deep thinkers like Fish, though, do not concern themselves with such nonsense.  They provide “conceptual clarity.”  Of course Fish can be neutral while the advocates of boycott cannot.  It’s easy to be neutral when you make the rules and then decide what sort of activity violates them.

Fish epitomizes the rhetoric of liberal Zionism in the academy: its champions embrace unctuous, often tendentious, commitments and then confer the act of moral judgment to those of a lesser intellectual caliber.  The default norms of academic rigor thus reproduce colonial power without ever having to claim an affiliation with the state violence from which the ostensibly apolitical derive their authority.

Fish doesn’t condemn moral judgment in itself, noting that it is “often necessary.”  What then is worthy of moral judgment?  Fish doesn’t say.  He simply declares Israel exempt from it.  It is a damning equivocation, illuminating a deep attachment to Israel that he refuses to acknowledge.  He pretends to be above the ethnonationalism he implicitly endorses, instead.

Fish and other Protectors of Timeless Standards were less tortured before the ASA resolution.  It is yet another reason to support boycott: it has required liberal Zionists to explain themselves, which has validated the suspicion that their main intellectual substance is mutually-conferred prestige.

Traditionally, this sort has talked much but said little.  These days, though, the more they talk the more they undo decades of colonial mythmaking.  Those of us marginalized by their authority are happy they are finally doing something useful, even if only by accident.

Steven Salaita
About Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita's most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

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50 Responses

  1. Daniel Rich
    Daniel Rich
    December 27, 2013, 2:38 pm

    How about omission? All those things not said, stated or purposely left out?

    Snow job about Israel-Palestine – or ‘The subtle Zionist propaganda of the New York Times’.

    It takes 2 to tango.

    • Citizen
      Citizen
      December 28, 2013, 5:02 am

      @ Daniel Rich
      Fish lies by omission to provide “conceptual clarity.”

  2. Castellio
    Castellio
    December 27, 2013, 3:34 pm

    A strong clear rebuttal by Salaita. To the point.

  3. American
    American
    December 27, 2013, 4:11 pm

    Its very peaceful and rewarding to be without any character whatsoever–at least for people who dont have any.

    “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.” Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies. Or, in other words (my words), “the state of Israel has done bad things to the Palestinians and therefore we should do bad things to Israeli universities.”>>

    Obviously the man is too stupid to grasp that moral imperatives have a right to override the guilty’s ‘freedoms’. And if restricitng them is the only weapon at hand that is what you use.
    He is also too stupid or arrogrant to recongize his typical ‘moral particularism’ in defense of Israel who claims their stealing of Palestine and forcing out Palestines was a ‘greater good’ for Jews.
    IMO throw it all at Israel—-for the ‘greater good’ of Palestines.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      December 27, 2013, 5:00 pm

      “Obviously the man is too stupid to grasp …”

      He’s not stupid, he’s merely doing the mental contortions necessary because he wants to think of himself as a deep thinker with character, morals and principles, but he realizes he’s willing to chuck them all because it’s his people he would have to judge guilty. So, instead, he creates a one-time-only-never-to-be-repeated-(unless-israel-needs-it) exception.

      Make no mistake, if 6 million Jews had been held in stateless oppression for three generations, Stanley Fish would have no problem at all grasping the moral imperative here. But when they’re the perps…

      • Citizen
        Citizen
        December 28, 2013, 4:49 am

        @ Woody Tanaka

        Bingo!

      • Sibiriak
        Sibiriak
        December 28, 2013, 7:51 am

        Woody Tanaka:

        Make no mistake, if 6 million Jews had been held in stateless oppression for three generations, Stanley Fish would have no problem at all grasping the moral imperative here. But when they’re the perps…

        Wow, that just nails it.

  4. Krauss
    Krauss
    December 27, 2013, 4:25 pm

    People of color and other rabble-rousers make “moral judgments”

    There is little, next to nothing, that I agree with Fish on. But to be fair to him, I don’t think he really racializes the conversation the way you do. Lots of white people, Jew or gentile, have taken moral judgements. And Israel itself is comprised of mostly non-whites. 50% of Jews are Jews of Arab descent, whose opinions on this issue is probably far to the right of Stanley Fish. I think that quote is an artifact of the American discourse, which so often descends into racial essentialism where people have different qualitifes depending on their race. I don’t think Fish was suggesting this, or even believing it implicitly, but it is telling that Salaita nonetheless brings this up; telling about Salaita.

    Also: one thing that has struck me is the total hypocrisy of the anti-BDS/anti-democractic crowd. Larry Summers exemplified this better than anyone. He is against boycotts, he declared, and for “engagement”. And then proceded within minutes to declare that the ASA is beyond the pale and must be sanctioned. So much for engagement.

    Another aspect that is very prevalent in the debate is that these people follow the example of Jeff Goldberg’s debate tactics. Namely, they are against all these things but they don’t really have a coherent alternative other than the status quo.

    And if you’re for the status quo: you’re for Apartheid.

    • Krauss
      Krauss
      December 27, 2013, 4:40 pm

      Just to add on the alternative to BDS (or the lack of one).

      I think the opposition to the BDS movement more or less boils down to a single thing: a primal scream that represents the fear, not entirely unfounded, that the same people who have controlled the narrative for decades are slowly losing that privilege of power.

      They are used to a feeble opposition, a J Street if you’d like, which issues concern-trolling statements but ultimately does nothing in substance to change the situation and is always desperate to maintain ties with a “mainstream” which is steadily shifting further to the right.

      I think the ASA vote was groundbreaking because it showed that there was a groundswell of support outside of the narrow confines of a right-wing Jewish establishment that ignores Jewish and non-Jewish critics alike. And Israel is no longer something the world can close its eyes to, which terrfies these people.

      Secondly, it also exposes their own personal and moral corruption. They are exposed as having no real plan but delaying and dismissing any genuine opposition to Apartheid. In effect, they become the enforcers of Apartheid. Of course, they always have been, but for the first time, perhaps ever, they are increasingly force to come to the understanding of that and this clashes with their own mythology of their own liberalism.

      • seafoid
        seafoid
        December 27, 2013, 5:16 pm

        The ASA brought BDS into the comment pages of the FT via an.opinion piece by Christopher Caldwell of that neocon rag the Weekly Standard. And the news is the neocon high priest hasbara cupboard is also bare. All he could say was a) it is not apartheid (no argument provided)
        b) opposition to Israel is antisemitic

        Big problem looming on the hasbara front. Nobody can come forward to convince us that Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians is justified. Nobody.

        Khalaas ya’ni. Khalaas.

      • yrn
        yrn
        December 27, 2013, 7:20 pm

        The group posted a page on their website Unfortunately, one of the testimonials the ASA quotes in support of their boycott action is from well-known anti-Semite Richard Falk:

        Richard Falk, has a unique concept of human rights; he called the Ayatollah Khomeini a liberator, he says that Islamist terror is the fault of the United States, because Islam “finds itself under the heels of U.S. economic, military, cultural, and diplomatic power,” and he is a member of a lawyers organization that the CIA once called a “front” for the Soviet Union. Oh, and he’s a 9/11 truther. .

        Khalaas Ana Mabsut

      • Citizen
        Citizen
        December 28, 2013, 4:37 am

        @ yrn

        In view of your blithe and highly misleading characterization of Richard Falk, a long time champion of global human rights, and for readers of this blog who may not know too much about him, and also because he touches on the obligation of scholars to be involved in human rights struggles like ASA has just done, I suggest you and others who read this blog take the time to read this 5 year old interview with Mr. Falk: http://electronicintifada.net/content/championing-global-human-rights-interview-richard-falk/7873

      • seafoid
        seafoid
        December 28, 2013, 10:15 am

        Of course Falk is antisemitic. If he were circumcised he’d be self hating. Do criminal Jews ever do time in Israel or does the antisemitism schtick get them off?

      • tommy
        tommy
        December 28, 2013, 11:13 am

        The Ayatollah Khomeini never owned slaves like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

      • Maximus Decimus Meridius
        Maximus Decimus Meridius
        December 28, 2013, 6:19 am

        Excellent post, Krauss, I agree completely.

        BDS sends shivers up ‘liberal Zionist’ spines because it forces them to acknowledge their own, morally untenable, position. Remember that these are the same people who for years have been telling us how much more support the Palestinian cause would have if only they would stop ‘targetting civilians’. And now, when pro-Palestinians have gone for the ultimate in non-violent protest – boycott – they object to that too. In reality, these people don’t want ANY form of protest against Israel. They want to be able to say they are in favour of ‘peace’, against the ‘settlements’ and in general paint themselves as oh so liberal and moderate, while doing absolutely nothing to further the cause of peace and justice in Palestine.

        The BDS movement terrifies these ‘liberal Zionists’ not because it ‘singles out Israel’ or not even because it is likely to have a huge economic impact on Israel or cause suffering to ‘ordinary Israelis’. No, it terrifies them because it squarely poses the question: ”In the quest for peace and justice, which side are you REALLY on?”. And that is one question they do not, and cannot, answer.

      • seafoid
        seafoid
        December 28, 2013, 4:51 pm

        Exactly. They are so afraid of the power of the values behind BDS.

    • Steven Salaita
      Steven Salaita
      December 27, 2013, 5:13 pm

      Hi Krauss,

      Thanks for this comment. I probably could have drawn out a bit more the ways that Fish’s discourse is implicitly racialized around the specific dynamics of the conflict and especially in the reactions to the boycott among liberal scholars.

      There’s a particular response that’s emerged that decries the “browning” of the ASA and comparable associations, and Fish, among others, has been part of the old guard protecting academe against such unsavory demographic shifts.

      Also: the very notion of impartiality or neutrality in situations of colonization beg for an explicit analysis of what so many wish to keep suppressed–namely, the racialism through which value systems are constructed and provided logic.

      Anyway, I enjoy your comments and I’m happy to be in conversation with you about this.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        December 27, 2013, 5:45 pm

        @Steven Salaita,

        Just yesterday I was thinking how much I enjoy your work. Please keep it up.

      • tokyobk
        tokyobk
        December 27, 2013, 8:11 pm

        Is there anything Fish has ever written or said that can be linked that would show that he supports these equally unreferenced calls against “the ‘browning’ of the ASA”?

        Its always interesting when American scholars (writing in English. Of course), simply because they can claim some ancestry in a “brown” part of the world assume that they are somehow “natives” against the old guard of white men. Meanwhile projecting a thoroughly American concept of race and identity onto the world because it serves a political interest in the West (and of the West).

        Israel does not fit into a simple white-black model no matter how much it is a forceful way to explain to Western audiences the Apartheid conditions which do exist, along religious and “ethnic” lines.

        Talk like this is a power play of the new guard against the old guard. Academia should serve the truth not factions who claim authority in tradition or anti-tradition, or simply inverting an old ethnic order.

        In the case of Jews replacing WASPs at the top of a “meritocratic” elite, I am sure most people here would agree.

    • Donald
      Donald
      December 27, 2013, 7:12 pm

      So here’s the Fish moral calculus

      Palestinian nonviolence equals Israeli violence against civilians

      I’m one of those Westerners who says that Palestinians should use nonviolent means to achieve their just ends. People like Fish cut the ground right out from underneath such arguments.

  5. Liz18
    Liz18
    December 27, 2013, 4:28 pm

    What a beautiful, courageous piece by Salaita. Throughout this ASA debate, I have been reminded of the risks taken by academics who support the ASA’s decision to boycott. These risks are among academics who are committed to true academic freedom in a traditionally liberal Zionist institution. As someone who has grown from being a liberal Zionist to an ardent Anti-Zionist, I am deeply moved by just how Salaida captures how fraught this issue is within the academe. It is such a shame that professors like Fish have been rewarded for what has looked like standing up for academic freedom, when instead all they have done is uphold the status quo of liberalism that really means not standing up for anything at all. And, yes, sure, these Fish “types” have contributed greatly to scholarship, but they never question the divide between those who do and do not have the privilege to contribute anything at all.

  6. nabraham
    nabraham
    December 27, 2013, 4:50 pm

    Prof. Fish distinguishes between a moral judgement and a professional one. In the case of the boycott, he chooses the latter.

    Let’s see, how valid this approach is? Suppose an electrician is called to wire circuits for the installation of an electric chair. Said electrician can blithely offer his professional opinion on the wiring job, keeping moral questions of capital punishment and questions of death by electrocution out of his calculus, and get the job done without bothering his conscience. Or, he can raise the moral issues about capital punishment which might impair his willingness to take on the wiring job.

    But what he can’t do in good conscience is use his professional judgment about the work to cover for his unwillingness to face the moral issues inherit in the job. That seems to me what Prof. Fish has done in the dealing with the boycott issue.

  7. Hostage
    Hostage
    December 27, 2013, 5:07 pm

    It is pointless to challenge that backlash using the conventions of intelligent debate, because there is little in the backlash that demonstrates intelligence.

    No fooling, it’s got the Kahanists in New York citing a secular human rights statute of all things (instead of the Torah) to claim that the boycott is illegal.

    Apparently their lawyers haven’t gotten the word yet that the Supreme Court doesn’t allow States to adopt laws that prohibit politically motivated civil rights boycotts. See NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886 (1982) http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/458/886/case.html

  8. StanleyHeller
    StanleyHeller
    December 27, 2013, 7:38 pm

    Distinguished Harvard Law School Grad Schools Harvard President about ASA, Israeli apartheid and prejudice at Harvard
    http://www.thestruggle.org/boyle%20letter%20to%20faust.htm

    and we take apart the claim that “universities” are denouncing the ASA at:

    http://www.TheStruggle.org

  9. Keith
    Keith
    December 27, 2013, 7:38 pm

    “By examining its language and assumptions, we acquire greater understanding of how Zionism functions in the institutional spaces that both inform and comprise state power.”

    A key to understanding Zionism is to understand that Zionism is the unifying ideology of an exclusivist, power-seeking collective. Look at the ascendance of Zionist Jews into the global power structure. Stanley Fish is a member of this collective and a member of the imperial intelligentsia which shapes the doctrinal system to achieve elite objectives. Now that we are ruled by money instead of Kings, the sky is the limit for the right people.

  10. jayn0t
    jayn0t
    December 27, 2013, 8:32 pm

    Stanley Fish is one of the leaders of the academic current known as ‘critical race theory’. This current is very critical of white racism, but when it comes to actual racism, they’re not so hot.

  11. ritzl
    ritzl
    December 28, 2013, 12:10 am

    Liberal Zionists have been pretty clear about their choice between Jewish and Democratic in Israel (i.e. NOT Democratic). I wonder what their choice will be for the US.

    Free speech (with criticism, boycott, etc. of Israel), or diminished rights. Decisions, decisions.

  12. annie
    annie
    December 28, 2013, 2:42 am

    “Moral judgments are often necessary, but they are not always necessary, and sometimes the better part of wisdom is to refrain from making them because they get in the way of conceptual clarity.”

    this reminds me of a line from gaza writes back:

    “The more morals die inside a human being, the more crimes he will be able to commit.”

    http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/narrative-stronger-weapons.html

  13. jayn0t
    jayn0t
    December 28, 2013, 4:21 am

    The problem with Steven Salaita’s analysis is that its located within the same framework as Stanley Fish – p.c. academic leftism – “People of color and the colonized must remain invisible for this logic to function.” Salaita locates the Israel/Palestine question within “colonialism”. He doesn’t ask why this approach was so successful everywhere except Israel. This article is valuable in drawing our attention to yet another “anti-racist” whose anti-racism is only about white racism. But it fails to note that white racism barely exists. Critical race theory etc. provide cover for Zionism.

  14. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    December 28, 2013, 5:19 am

    Stanley Fish reasons that academic freedom must be protected. Full Stop. He says nothing regarding other forms of boycott- cultural or economic. He states that the academy must be professional and justice is not their business. He seems to state rather explicitly that he would have opposed a boycott of South Africa’s academia, although he doesn’t comment about what reactions he would have had to the German academia before December 7th of 41. To accuse him of ethnic sensitivity seems to ignore the fact that his argument extends to South Africa (in retrospect.) I think one can make an argument against academic boycott and Fish’s argument was not touched by this post by Steven Salaita.

    • justicewillprevail
      justicewillprevail
      December 28, 2013, 6:51 am

      Well, if you are suddenly in favour of academic freedom, you will of course support the efforts of academics to sanction Israel for its disregard and shutdown of academic freedom, when it comes the academic freedom of Palestinian universities and institutions. Or maybe you just support academic freedom when it is politically convenient for Israel to allow it. Not much of a full stop there, more a hypocritical pause. You could of course try informing yourself of the reasons why American scholars feel strongly about this issue, instead of following Fish’s similarly uninformed grandstanding.

    • Donald
      Donald
      December 28, 2013, 9:58 am

      ” Fish’s argument was not touched by this post by Steven Salaita.”

      False. One can make a case against academic boycotts, but Fish’s argument included the equation of this boycott with Israel’s bombing of Palestinian universities. Both are “bad”, Full Stop, in Fish’s moral universe.

      If I were going to make a case against academic boycotts, I would be careful to avoid giving the impression that the case required one to make fatuous moral equations between high explosives and peaceful protest.

    • Sibiriak
      Sibiriak
      December 28, 2013, 10:19 am

      yonah fredman:

      He seems to state rather explicitly that he would have opposed a boycott of South Africa’s academia…

      The question is: did he oppose the South Africa academic boycott?

      • jayn0t
        jayn0t
        December 28, 2013, 9:27 pm

        “Did he oppose the South Africa academic boycott”. Of course not. South Africa was an example of white supremacy.

        But as far as Israel is concerned, he takes a different view. Fish writes “I take my text from George Bush, who, in an address to the United Nations on September 23, 1991, said this of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism: ‘Zionism… is the idea that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people… and to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and indeed throughout history'”. (‘Words That Wound’, a work of ‘critical race theory’, p 60).

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      December 28, 2013, 11:28 am

      “although he doesn’t comment about what reactions he would have had to the German academia before December 7th of 41. ”

      Of course he doesn’t because to do so would unravel his argument, so he ignored it. Had he done so he would have been forced to admit that his supposed reasoning — “academic freedom must be protected. Full Stop. — is not universally applicable. For example, during times of war. From there it is a rather trivial exercise to argue that it is likewise not applicable where the beneficiary of the academic freedom is committing crimes against humanity.

    • marc b.
      marc b.
      December 28, 2013, 2:24 pm

      He seems to state explicitly? Is that like speaking with mealy mouthed clarity? And Fish never formed an opinion of an academic boycott of SA at the time? That would be bizarre if it were true. Fish is in his 70s and he’s been lodged in the bowels of academia his entire adult life. He seems to be more concerned with ‘academics’ as a commercial enterprise than anything else. More of a free marketeer of ideas (mostly bad, but we’ll let the market sort that out) than an idealist.

  15. piotr
    piotr
    December 28, 2013, 9:18 am

    Besides obvious ideological differences, my impression is that both Salaita and Fish are literature theorists and not logicians. Thus Fish deploys crappy logic and Salaita pinpoints the social milieu of that logic, and social consequences, but not the faults in logic itself.

    Perhaps the most ubiquitous logical fault is to construct meaningless arguments using vague concept with meaning tacitly shifted to the advantage of the writer. Consider this: Fish promises to show that ASA boycott is BAD regardless of the MORAL judgement. That truly begs the question: what does it mean GOOD and BAD? Usually we have to rely on some vague intuition what is it, but if we remove morality/ethics from the picture, it becomes truly puzzling.

    To me as a reader it looks like my favorite road sign “Entering State Forest Proceed at your own risk” that followed the end of a speed limit. You are entering a twisty unpaved track and no normal assumptions apply (e.g. if your car will stop because of snow, the next people may come in the spring, and to get your cell phone working, it may help to climb the nearest mountain but with no guarantee). In this context, we have to be on alert for any signs what Fish means by “good” and “bad” and any further notions that he deploys. “Academic freedom” is apparently good, but once we are in wilderness, we are still on alert: how is academic freedom good apart from morality, and what is it, and what violates it.

    Apparently, academic freedom entails the unrestricted freedom of academic institutions to conduct “joint projects” with each other. Many possible projects are prohibited by law, e.g. research on cryptography with institutions from non-allied countries like Iran or Russia (and even students from those countries? I know that FBI sometimes check such students). But what concerns Fish is the protections of academic institutions from academicians. Again, we are not in the land of common usage here. Advise from the wise: once you see the words “conceptual clarity”, take nothing for granted and examine every word (if you bother reading at all).

    What Salaita captured perfectly is the background of the self-assurance associated with this crap, namely the privilege of the ruling class.

  16. Sibiriak
    Sibiriak
    December 28, 2013, 9:51 am

    [Stanley Fish:]…the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies.

    That’s a false and misleading formulation, imo. The Association is not assuming the interests of one state against another, it is assuming the values of universal human rights and international law in judging the actions of a state.

    Fish’s formulation, “siding with one side in a conflict between two states” is just a milder version of “siding with one side in a tribal war” , and of course, when two “tribes” are going at each other, the implication is that any serious academic should stay above the fray and simply observe and analyze.

    Fish goes on to write:

    . Now, that’s a substantive position if there ever was one, but it still stops short of answering the substantive question that will be of interest to many readers: who, generally, is in the right or wrong, the Palestinians or the Israelis?

    Once again this formulation invites “siding” with one group of people against another group, rather than asking the substantive question: do specific actions of the Israeli state violate international law and constitute crimes against humanity?

    And, Fish tells us, the question of “which group is right, the Palestinians or Israelis”:

    turns on a geopolitical calculation I am not competent to make

    So: the evaluating a group vs group situation (“tribal war”) requires “geopolitical calculation”: not a moral judgment (or even a legal one).

    Finally, Fish collapses into complete conceptual confusion:

    …who, generally, is in the right or wrong, the Palestinians or the Israelis? The answer to that question has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether a boycott of Israeli universities can be justified.

    One question turns on a geopolitical calculation I am not competent to make and so I don’t make it; the other turns on the true nature of academic work and academic freedom, matters on which I am always ready to pronounce because they involve a professional, not a moral, judgment.

    Fish is utterly confused regarding the difference between moral judgments (value-judgments) and factual propositions/logico-conceptual analysis.

    The question of whether “the boycott of Israeli universities can be justified ” must involve value (moral) judgments. That’s the essence of “justification” as opposed to description or analysis. So its really absurd for Fish to suggest that he is refraining from moral judgments, after just making one.

    [Fish:]Moral judgments are often necessary, but they are not always necessary, and sometimes the better part of wisdom is to refrain from making them because they get in the way of conceptual clarity.

    That statement is basically meaningless absent any standard of when moral judgments are to be considered necessary and when they are not.

    It would make much more sense to say: conceptual confusion can get in the way of moral clarity; when moral judgments are to be made, conceptual clarity is a prerequisite.

    Unfortunately, Stanley Fish lacks both conceptual clarity and moral clarity.

  17. MHughes976
    MHughes976
    December 28, 2013, 10:30 am

    I’m all for conceptual clarity – wish I had more of it. I have no idea at all why conceptual clarity and moral judgement should be considered antagonistic, any more than conceptual clarity and recognition of facts. They’re part and parcel of each other.
    As to Fish’s quoted argument – the ASA is saying that ‘intellectuals need to be free of state interests and interference’ and is then, with alleged inconsistency, taking the part of the Palestinian state. But that is not what they’re doing or saying: they’re saying, rightly or wrongly, that Palestinian intellectuals are being clobbered and impeded day in day out by vigorous interference from the Israeli state in the name of its own interests. A model of consistency and conceptual clarity.
    Salaita concentrates on unpleasant presuppositions that he finds in Fish, But I think he can be challenged directly on what he claims is his own conceptual ground.
    For my part I find the reference to the specific needs of ‘intellectuals’ to be free of state interference slightly snooty.
    A Christmas cracker this year asked how you communicate with a fish. You drop it a line.

  18. Pamela Olson
    Pamela Olson
    December 28, 2013, 10:37 am

    “Fish and other Protectors of Timeless Standards were less tortured before the ASA resolution. It is yet another reason to support boycott: it has required liberal Zionists to explain themselves, which has validated the suspicion that their main intellectual substance is mutually-conferred prestige.”

    Exactly.

  19. piotr
    piotr
    December 28, 2013, 12:54 pm

    I just checked the essay of Stanley Fish There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too. I must admit that Fish is a strange guy, and indeed, he argues quite similarly in that essay as in the article we discuss now.

    One feature of his style is to start with a provocative example that is well chosen to oppose what he wants to say. In the essay he starts by citing John Milton when that, while extolling free speech, made exception for such obvious absurds like “popery”. The second feature is that he likes the vague notion of “good” while obviously stripping it from any meaning. The third feature is that this vague “goodness” entails whatever the wielders of the political power may mean, and if that excludes “poppery”, so be it. Far from criticizing Milton, Fish marshals various arguments without explaining how to limit their scope.

    The last aspect is a serious deficiency. An argument that can prove everything is vacuous, hence worthless. At the very least, Fish should consider if The First Amendment was idiotic, or if it has some merit.

    • jayn0t
      jayn0t
      December 29, 2013, 6:54 am

      In criticizing John Milton making an exception to free speech for Catholics, Stanley Fish ignores history. The reason Milton didn’t believe in free speech for Catholics was because a Catholic theocracy had recently burned Protestants at the stake, and some of the Catholics in the British Isles were conspiring with the French to bring back that theocracy. Milton denied Catholics freedom because they would misuse it to undermine freedom

      Fish falsely puts anti-popery in the UK in the same basket as the KKK in America.

  20. Yitzgood
    Yitzgood
    December 29, 2013, 2:56 am

    Consider what Fish is saying: advocates of boycott are equivalent in deed and action to the practices of the State of Israel.

    Not directly. He is primarily refusing to equate Israel’s government with Israeli universities. The phrase “bad things” is deliberately nonspecific.

    What then is worthy of moral judgment? Fish doesn’t say. He simply declares Israel exempt from it.

    He doesn’t say that Israel in particular (or anyone else) is “exempt from moral judgement.” He is saying that moral judgements about government policies, however negative, don’t justify academic boycotts.

    • piotr
      piotr
      December 29, 2013, 12:34 pm

      Basically, he is figuring a convenient distinction and using it as an argument that does not require any explanation. This is pure casuistry.

      In particular, the word “freedom” has a nice ring to it and is frequently used that way, totally ignoring the fact that different people perceive totally different things as freedom. In the context of “academic freedom”, to most people who are affected this means a degree of protection of academicians from administrators and academic institutions from political institutions. In both cases we are talking about a very clear impact on the persons and institution.

      Boycott comes from individual persons and while enacted by an organization, this is an organization without political power. It is hard to see any coercion in the boycott. And if there is no coercion, it is hard to see that it impinges upon any type of freedom.

      Now some lawmakers propose to coerce academic institutions to obey “academic freedom” by disassociating themselves from ASA. Slapping “freedom” label on an argument is no more convincing that slapping label “fresh fruit salad” on a can. The principle “buyer beware” is pretty universal.

    • Castellio
      Castellio
      December 30, 2013, 4:27 pm

      “He is saying that moral judgements about government policies, however negative, don’t justify academic boycotts.”

      Yes, I think your distinctions are right, that is what he is saying.

      However, Salaita is addressing why it is that Fish believes he can take such a line of argument – disregarding the actual relation of the Israeli universities to the on-going state practices and the state support they receive for it – and I believe Salaita gets it right.

      I agree with Piotr that Fish’s argument is casuistry, and Salaita does us the favour of explaining the conditions that allow for Fish not to see his argument for what it is.

  21. Yitzgood
    Yitzgood
    December 30, 2013, 9:36 pm

    However, Salaita is addressing why it is that Fish believes he can take such a line of argument – disregarding the actual relation of the Israeli universities to the on-going state practices and the state support they receive for it

    He says things such as “liberal authority has always been thoroughly violent to the communities that had to be erased in order for academia to achieve the enlightened modernity for which it was manifestly destined.” What you just wrote seems to be mean something, at least, but I have my doubts about Salaita. Many of his sentences seem to lack any discernible meaning at all, including the one I just quoted. But let’s assume for a minute that the sentence has a meaning. It seems to take in a great deal more than just Israeli policies, doesn’t it? He is making broad and dismissive pronouncements about things called “liberal authority” and “enlightened modernity.”

    • Castellio
      Castellio
      December 31, 2013, 11:34 am

      As to your last question: Yes, he is.

      Are they too broad and dismissive? It could be argued that they are: but the point of the sentence that you seem to miss is that “liberal authority” and “enlightened modernity” are being linked with “manifestly destined”.

      In other words, Fish’s argument is no different in kind than a range of arguments offered by many others to support historical genocides (manifest destiny), and that very same argument justifies the privilege of the speaker (Fish): he is a representative of that (supposed and assumed) manifest superiority.

      If you were to ask me if liberalism and all liberals are inherently racist I would say no – I don’t know what Salaita would say – but I recognize that there are many racists who attempt to deny that fact by using ‘liberal’ arguments. Certainly in this case, Fish appears to be among the latter.

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