I don’t have the heart to say much about this Louis Liebovich op-ed; every argument in it is so feeble that even linking to it seems like an act of cruelty. Most of it consists of “if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same” non-sequiturs. Yes, if the hiring process involved picking one person at random and not looking into their record, this would be problematic. Yes, if Salaita had somehow managed to never teach a student who supported Israeli policy, his teaching evaluations would be less meaningful. In the absence of any actual evidence that these things are true, the hypotheticals are also entirely irrelevant, and his evidence-free attack on the professionalism of the department and the school’s administration is a disgrace.
Still, I would have let this go without the following remarkable paragraph:
What was it about an English professor at Virginia Tech, who is not a Native American, that made him the choice for a tenured position with a salary of $85,000? What kind of research has he completed? How many books and articles has he published? Who were the other candidates, if there were other candidates, and why was he more qualified than the others?
Whoa, what was that?
who is not a Native American
Seriously, someone launching a volley of unwarranted attacks on the professionalism and competence of other academics is suggesting that one has to be Native American to teach in an American Indian Studies department? I just…wow. (Should I be barred from teaching American government because I was born in Canada? Should I be barred from teaching constitutional law because I never served on the Supreme Court?) I’ll be charitable and just assume Liebovich is arguing in bad faith here. As for the rest, I’ll defer to the committee of experts whose judgment I have no basis for second-guessing over someone with nothing to offer but a bunch of weaselly rhetorical questions with no factual basis.
Liebovich also asserts without argument that Salaita has tweeted “anti-Semitic remarks.” This brings us to Liel Leibovitz, who has…well, not exactly a response to critics of his first post on the subject as some words that give the vague appearance of a response:
And, for the most part, Salaita’s defenders have spent the past week engaging in linguistic acrobatics that may be the stuff of legend in undergraduate semiotics classes but that are intellectually and morally worthless once they engage with the world at large, where words still sometimes have meanings and are treated as more than playthings to be molded and reshaped according to the most au courant theory. (For a particularly fine example of tongue twisting and tortured logic, see the unimprovably named essay “Clownish conflation of ascription and achievement constitutes calumny,” a missive whose very title says a thing or two about the clarity of its author’s vision).
I could just note that the closest Leibovitz comes to an actual response to a lengthy, carefully argued response to his argument is to go “neener-neener” at the title and drop the mic. But I do think that the verbiage he uses to evade a substantive argument is also instructive. It seems to be a random assemblage of words taken from a 90s culture-war essay draft Roger Kimball rejected as being too lazy and cliched.
Look, you don’t need semiotics or deconstruction or Robert Mapplethorpe or Piss Christ or any other “au courant” theory to see that Leibovitz’s implication of anti-Semitism is not supported by the tweets in question. You just need an old-fashioned, minimally honest effort to understand what he’s trying to say. First of all, it’s not absolutely impossible that someone who tweeted things like “[t]hat particular look has been used to dehumanize Jews for many centuries, to nefarious ends” and “I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God. Equal rights for everybody, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc.” is an anti-Semite, but it seems highly unlikely. And even with respect to the isolated tweet in question, Leibovitz’s reading (“something that doesn’t exist has gone from horrible to honorable”) makes absolutely no sense even in itself, while the alternative reading does. (In this sense, my comparison of Leibovitz’s reading to the Halbig troofers is unfair — to the troofers. At least their reading makes sense if you make the mistake of focusing solely on the isolated passage.) Putting the tweet in context makes it obvious that he was arguing that the conflation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism was undermining the very real and very bad latter thing, not that anti-Semitism is imaginary. Salaita has tweeted things one can object to on multiple grounds, but as for evidence that he’s an anti-Semite (a crucial question if we’re going to throw academic freedom out the window), his critics have nothing.
Despite the more intelligent language, the rest of his argument has all the same problems as Liebovich’s. I have no idea if Leibovitz is right about the one book (a collection of essays written for a general audience, and hence not the first place you’d start if examining only one if his works) he criticizes. Again, I see no reason not to defer to the committee of actual experts who examined his entire record versus other candidates over a non-expert who has already reached a pre-determined conclusion examining one of his books.
And the attempted boundary-policing of other fields — “other titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the Sioux or the Seminoles” — is silly even as a pretext. First of all, I’m not inclined to think that it’s up to scholars of American politics, video games, or anything else to determine what constitutes content relevant to the field of Native American Studies. And more importantly, even if I did feel strongly about what the content qualifications should be, it seems obvious that the appropriate remedy is for the administration to make its case before the fact or at least during the actual hiring process, not to yank a job offer after the new hire and spouse have resigned their positions and been scheduled to teach classes. But needless to say nobody really opposes Salaita because they think he’s not qualified; they oppose him because they disagree with his substantive views. Which is fine — I even agree the criticisms in some cases — but this cannot be a firable offense if academic freedom means anything.
I’ll conclude with these thoughts from Corey Robin:
[I]t takes a long time to familiarize yourself with a literature and a field, to understand its debates, its ins and outs. I deeply resent it when someone thinks they can just dive-bomb into a discussion I’m a part of without having done some background work of his (and it is, almost always, a dude) own: not because I have a fetish for expertise or academic authority but because I respect the work of intellectual labor, the amount of dedication, effort, and stamina that is required to truly understand and master a set of arguments. I respect people who’ve done the work—and expect that respect in turn. That some academics, who have no background or demonstrated record in Salaita’s field (indeed, can’t even bother to figure out what his field of expertise actually is), think they can now just hunt around his books and articles in order to draw fatal conclusions about his talents shows a profound disrespect for our collective enterprise. Indeed, a profound disrespect for themselves.