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Threats to Academic Freedom, Based On “Principles” Nobody Believes


Greenwald’s post on the attacks against Brooklyn College is brilliant, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. To reiterate, the idea that any speaker on campus needs to be immediately “balanced” with an opposing viewpoint is silly in theory and doesn’t exist anywhere in practice. And it’s overwhelmingly clear that Dershowitz himself doesn’t believe in the “principle” he’s pretending to support:

But nobody proves the disingenuousness of this excuse more than Dershowitz himself. Like the BDS movement, Dershowitz is a highly controversial and polarizing figure who inspires intense animosity around the world. That’s due to many reasons, including his defense of virtually every Israeli attack, his advocacy of “torture warrants” whereby courts secretly authorize state torture, his grotesque attempt to dilute what a “civilian” is and replace it with “the continuum of civilianality” in order to justify Israeli aggression, and his chronic smearing of Israel critics such as author Alice Walker as “bigots”.

Despite how controversial he is, Dershowitz routinely appears on college campuses to speak without opposition. Indeed, as the Gawker writer who writes under the pen name Mobutu Sese Seko first documented, Dershowitz himself has spoken at Brooklyn College on several occasions without opposition. That includes – as the college’s Political Science Professor Corey Robin noted – when he was chosen by the school’s Political Science department to deliver the Konefsky lecture in which he spoke at length – and without opposition. He also delivered a 2008 speech at Brooklyn College, alone, in which he discussed a wide variety of controversial views, including torture. As Professor Robin noted, when Dershowitz agreed to speak at the school, “he didn’t insist that we invite someone to rebut him or to represent the opposing view.”

Debates, as Glenn says, are one potentially useful format — but just one. Speakers are brought onto campus to speak alone about controversial topics all the time. When I gave the Constitution Day lecture, nobody thought that an adherent of Alexander Bickel had to be invited to present an approving viewpoint. Indeed, such lectures are virtually never a debate format, and never carry the connotation that a sponsoring department agrees with everything that a speaker says. I don’t believe that most of the critics attacking BC fail to understand this, and Dershowitz surely knows better. As Kieran says:

Dershowitz claims that the academic freedom of these students is being violated, and asks “Does the political science department not also represent the students who major in or take courses in that subject?”

It seems to me that the answer is, quite trivially, “No”. Sponsoring a panel or speaker does not represent an endorsement of a speaker’s views, either. University departments can organize talks and roundtables, and they can invite whomever they like. It’s their call. That’s part of what academic freedom is. Grandstanding politicians should butt out. In this case, no one is being mandated to attend. The “grades and future” of BC Poli Sci majors are not under threat from anyone inside the Department. The students are not being “proselytized”. The department will not “vote to offer courses advocating BDS against Israel and grading students based on their support for the department’s position”. If any of those things were really happening, then the department would be irredeemably corrupt and “balancing” something as trivial as a roundtable would do nothing to save it. But of course none of them are. Pretending otherwise is just pure bullshit.

If Judith Butler — or any other scholar of her stature — wanted to speak at my college I would strongly support it and encourage my colleagues to sponsor the talk. Not because I agree with her about everything, which I certainly don’t, but indeed because I don’t I’m likely to learn something. No sponsorship implies anything like a complete endorsement, and this is so obvious the arguments to the contrary are plainly being offered in bad faith. If Brooklyn College were to deny a similar panel to critics of BDS there would be ample reason for criticism, but there’s no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. In the meantime, on the proposition that Alan Dershowitz is entitled to put his thumb on the scale of any public discussion on an issue that concerns him, I’m going to continue to vote “no.”

…also, anyone who thinks that Dershowitz’s advocacy of torture warrants wasn’t pro-torture should click through to Kieran’s old post on the subject.  Yes, it’s true that the Bush administration tortured people despite laws against it, and the Obama administration has chosen not to prosecute any of the torturers.   But one reason for both of these things is the fact that people like Dershowitz and Hillary Clinton effectively support torture by discussing embarrassingly sophomoric “ticking time bomb” scenarios that, while they collapse under the slightest inspection, certainly effectively convey the idea that torture is a Tragic Necessity that we must sometimes undertake to Save American Lives.   It’s in that political environment that the John Yoos of the world flourish.

…In comments, Bob S wins the internets for the day: “Brooklyn College could invite either Noam Chomsky or Norman Finklestein, both critics of the BDS campaign, to provide an opposing viewpoint. That should satisfy Dershowitz.”

…and the threat to academic freedom has officially extended to threats of financial retaliation. On the political pressure coming from members of the House see here.

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