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When Challenging the Expertise of Others, It’s Preferable To Be At Least Minimally Informed

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K.C. Johnson kinda sorta defends Steven Salaita’s academic freedom, but things go quickly off the rails:

The Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois continues to engender controversy. The three most perceptive commentaries came from FIRE and Steven Lubet. In comments with which I entirely agree, FIRE condemned the public statement of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise, who justified the revocation of Salaita’s offer on the grounds “we cannot and will not tolerate . . . personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse . . . viewpoints themselves.” But why, as FIRE noted, should anyone be prohibited from “disrespectfully” “abusing” ideas”—such as racism or sexism or homophobia? Lubet analyzed the differences between Salaita’s academic freedom and legal claims, and correctly took to task a group of mostly left-of-center law professors who penned a letter defending Salaita but in the process minimized or even whitewashed Salaita’s extremist views. He spoke of his own experience with the ACLU defending the Nazis’ right to march at Skokie—but added that “the ACLU never soft-pedaled the Nazis as merely passionate critics of international banking.”

To argue that Salaita shouldn’t have been fired but his comments are more offensive than some of his defenders claim is, as far as it goes, a perfectly defensible position. The Lubet op-ed Johnson uncritically cites on this point, however, is a disaster. Lubet’s point about “whitewashing” Salaita is supported by three tweets, and he completely botches two of them:

That brings us to the political dimension, where Salaita’s position is weakest of all. Many of Salaita’s supporters have been unfortunately eager to obscure the true nature of his tweets, usually by calling him a passionate supporter of Palestinian rights who reacted strongly to recent events in Gaza. That does not begin to tell the whole story. Salaita’s demeaning comments about Israelis and Jews predate the current fighting, and they go far beyond the bounds of civil, or even passionate, discourse. For example, Salaita celebrated the kidnapping (and subsequent murder) of three Israeli teenagers and proudly called for more such crimes to be committed: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the (expletive) West Bank settlers would go missing.” He once retweeted a vile suggestion that journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ought to get “the pointy end of a shiv.”

Salaita also traffics in anti-Semitism, having tweeted: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” It should go without saying that racism — toward any group, for any reason — is never honorable, despite Salaita’s own indulgence of bigotry. Even bigots, of course, are entitled to academic freedom, but Salaita’s supporters have been regrettably disingenuous. A committee of the Illinois AAUP, for example, argued that Salaita had merely made “an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East.” This is manifestly untrue. Salaita has not called for an end to violence against Israelis. Quite the contrary, he has reveled in it.

The tweet about settlers, as I’ve said, is completely indefensible. But the Goldberg re-tweet — and, let’s repeat, re-tweet — did not say that “Jeffrey Goldberg” should end up “at the pointy of shiv,” but that his story should be. That’s a huge difference, particularly in a context in which UIUC apolgists like Cary Nelson are trying to argue that the re-tweet was a literal incitement to violence. And reading the “since 1948” tweet as anti-Semitic makes little sense even in isolation and is transparently wrong in any kind of context. So well it might be true that some people are minimizing the offensiveness of Salaita’s tweets — although I still don’t know who this might be because no specific examples of minimization are cited — we can say that Lubet and Johnson are substantially exaggerating them. The fact that Johnson is not sufficiently informed enough about the case to spot Lubet’s howlers is not encouraging.

Johnson, however, does not let his ignorance about basic facts get in the way of making much larger claims. Johnson attempts to argue that Salaita is unqualified and was hired for solely political reasons. Much of his post is taken up, however, involves a running out the clock by returning to Ward Churchill. An extensive LGM investigation has determined, however, that Ward Churchill and Steven Salaita are different people, and so the former’s plagiarism says less than nothing about the academic work of another scholar hired by another department. When we finally get to the evidence about Salaita’s alleged lack of qualifications, we can see why Johnson decided to run out the clock discussion a decade-old reactionary cause celebre — he’s got nothing:

Salaita was hired for a position in an American Indian studies program. His academic specialization, to the extent it can be called that, appears to be Middle Eastern or Arab-American studies. (His last book was entitled, Israel’s Dead Soul). As the Kramer excerpt illustrated, it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between the quality, tone, and substance of Salaita’s “scholarship” and that of his tweets. Subsequent work by David Bernstein (examining some of Salaita’s book reviews) and Liel Liebovitz (discussing some of Salaita’s “academic” publications) reinforces the concern with the quality of his work.

So we have two sources cited to support the claim that Salaita was unqualified. The first is a discussion not of his scholarship but his Goodreads book reviews. So we can ignore this entirely, while pondering the extent to which Johnson is insulting the intelligence of his readers. The second we’ve been through in far more detail than it merited. To summarize, it was not a review of Salaita’s scholarship as a whole but a review of one of his books, a collection of essays written for a general audience and hence not where you’d begin. And the reviewer had already determined that Salaita was unqualified based on on a tendentious-at-best reading of his Twitter feed, so I’m not inclined to take his word even about the merits of this one book.

The fact that Johnson uses this pathetically weak evidence to attack not only Salaita’s qualifications but the value of an entire field puts is reminiscent of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s dismissal of African American Studies based on titles of dissertations she hadn’t read. Johnson, natch, defended Riley, and is still using similar techniques to issue broad attacks on fields of scholarship he knows virtually nothing about. I have no idea if Salaita was the best candidate for the position or not, but Johnson has given me less than no reason not to defer to actual experts in the field who are actually familiar with Salaita’s work.

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