Commentary Magazine


Topic: academia

A Smoke Screen for Palestine-Pushers

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).
Read More

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).

Brown claims that federally-funded area studies centers are “essential” for U.S. policy, a “vital national asset,” and “often the only sources of knowledge when crises erupt in unfamiliar places.” They’ve done an “outstanding job of training” Middle East experts, and “political” criticism of them “threatens the ability of the United States to understand the world and act effectively in it.” If you don’t like it that “an individual faculty member offends a supporter of a particular political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog be caught in the crossfire?” Should “programming that is critical of Israel on some campuses endanger all funding for international education?”

Those are valid questions, but they’re posed disingenuously. Here are Brown’s two main elisions:

1. The only people who think that these centers are a “vital national asset” are the professors who collect the money. Over the years, there have been a series of government-sponsored reviews of these Title VI programs (reference is to the authorizing title of the Higher Education Act), and not one review has concluded that the programs do anything resembling an “outstanding job,” especially on languages. (The last major review, by the National Academies, concluded there was “insufficient information to judge program performance.”)

The claim that these centers are “often the only sources of knowledge” on emerging trouble spots is just untrue. That’s rarely the case, and as regards the Middle East, it’s now never the case. Government has had to assemble the full range of capabilities, from area expertise to language training, in-house. That’s why the Obama administration—yes, the Obama administration!—cut the budget of this “vital national asset” by 40 percent back in 2011. The only lobbying for Title VI funding comes from within academe itself.

2. The “political” criticism of Title VI Middle East centers is a response to the rampant politicization of some of these centers by those who run them, and who’ve mobilized them against Israel. This isn’t a matter of “an individual faculty member” here or there. It’s a plague that arises from overall attitudes in the field. Brown knows the problem, which is why he recently issued a letter to MESA’s members effectively imploring them not to drag the organization into a BDS debate.

One obvious effect has been to drive the study of Israel almost completely out of these centers, into separately-funded and administered Israel studies programs. Some Title VI Middle East centers, thus relieved of the burden of fairly presenting Israel, have become even more blatant purveyors of pro-Palestinian agitprop. This fall, for the first time, half a dozen Title VI center directors openly pledged to boycott Israeli academe. How might that impact the centers they administer? No one really knows.

A case can be made for Title VI. Not every Middle East center is a shameful disaster, and most of the funding goes to centers specializing in other world areas. Brown alludes to some of these arguments. But his broader defense of the Middle Eastern end of Title VI is a misleading attempt to throw up a smoke screen for the very people who really threaten the program: radical professors who treat it as a slush fund to promote their political causes on campus. If Title VI gets rough treatment in the present reauthorization, students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog should know who’s at fault: the Palestine-pushers who’ve fouled the academic nest with their relentless propagandizing.

Read Less

Academia’s Islands of Authoritarianism

As a history professor, Doron Ben-Atar might have had some frame of reference for the creepy and alarming campaign of censorship and intimidation waged against him by fellow faculty at Fordham University. But those historical parallels would only have made the episode all the more disturbing.

Read More

As a history professor, Doron Ben-Atar might have had some frame of reference for the creepy and alarming campaign of censorship and intimidation waged against him by fellow faculty at Fordham University. But those historical parallels would only have made the episode all the more disturbing.

Ben-Atar told his story yesterday in Tablet magazine. It’s worth reading the whole story, but the essential facts are these: Ben-Atar was, as most right-thinking people were, staunchly opposed to the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, which the group voted on last December. He joined a steering committee to fight the boycott and, as a member of Fordham’s American Studies executive committee, pushed to cut ties with the ASA until it rescinded the boycott. Here’s what happened next:

It was this stand that led Fordham’s Title IX officer to launch the proceedings. During an emotional meeting convened to discuss the appropriate response to the measure, I stated that should Fordham’s program fail to distance itself from the boycott, I will resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry. The program’s director, Michelle McGee, in turn filed a complaint against me with the Title IX office, charging that I threatened to destroy the program. (As if I could? And what does this have to do with Title IX?) This spurious complaint (the meeting’s minutes demonstrated that I did not make such a threat) ushered me into a bruising summer that taught me much about my colleagues, the university, and the price I must be willing to pay for taking on the rising tide of anti-Zionism on American campuses.

The following Monday, Coleman appeared in my office to conduct her investigation. Alas, she refused to explain what I was accused of specifically or how what I supposedly did amounted to a Title IX violation. Remaining vague, she hinted that others, including perhaps Fordham College’s dean, who chaired the fateful meeting, supported the complaint. Who are the others, I asked? Is there anything beyond that supposed one sentence? She would not disclose. I told Coleman that I took the complaint very seriously, but at the advice of my attorney I needed to think things through. Coleman told me she’d be in touch with my attorney, and we parted ways.

He was cooperative, though he was treated as hostile. He was eventually cleared of the absurd charge of religious discrimination–for opposing religious discrimination!–and learned a hard lesson about the place of Jews in American higher education in 2014:

Administrators and colleagues failed to protect my First Amendment rights, and fed the assault on my character. A person utterly unqualified to understand anti-Semitism sat in judgment of a scholar who publishes on and teaches the subject. A report has been issued without letting me even defend myself. My choice to have legal representation has been cited as proof of my guilt. Most painful was realizing that my commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, so central to who I am, has been used against me in a most unethical manner not only by the member of the faculty who filed the baseless charge, but also by the office of the University Counsel.

Ben-Atar was merely expressing his opposition to bigotry against his own people, and for that he found himself trapped in a Yuri Dombrovsky novel within a prestigious university in the city with the largest number of Jews outside of Tel Aviv. Aside from the obvious presence of anti-Semitism among the American universities in charge of shaping the minds of the next generation, there are a couple of important lessons here.

The first is that the academic boycotts of Israel are not about Israel. Most of us know this, of course, and those leading the boycotts almost certainly know it. But they have been able to claim limited targets, and thus try and dispute the accusations of anti-Semitism. They are boycotting Israel, they say, a sovereign state. And they are doing so because of the state’s policies, they say.

What Ben-Atar’s case exposes to the light of day is that these boycotts are not simply about preventing collaboration with academics in Israel. They are about regulating and restricting the speech and the behavior of Americans, and specifically Jews in America. Ben-Atar endured not just character assassination but the threat of the kinds of charges that could follow him throughout his academic career. It was a warning shot, and not a subtle one.

The other lesson is that there is a burgeoning crisis in higher education in which universities are roping themselves off from the basic right of due process. In September, KC Johnson explored the “crusade against due process for college students accused of sexual assault” in COMMENTARY. That crusade has only continued, with colleges removing due process from the accused and, in California, a law inserting the government into the bedrooms of college students and which critics fear will criminalize much sexual contact. (Encouragingly, the crusade has its vocal critics on the left as well.)

The larger picture, then, is one in which American universities, issue by issue, are walling themselves off from American constitutional rights and general principles of law and order in order to create islands of authoritarianism and institutions of enforced groupthink. That groupthink is no longer an emptyheaded anticapitalism. It now includes the threat of torpedoing careers for opposing anti-Semitism and bureaucratizing human contact. That there is a crisis brewing can no longer be denied. The question is, what will American academia do about it?

Read Less

Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

Read More

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

Read Less

What If College Is Making People Stupid?

International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde has become the latest commencement speaker to be chased off by American academia’s guardians of the eternally closed minds. After protests over Lagarde’s planned graduation speech at Smith College from professors and students, Lagarde bowed out, echoing Condoleezza Rice’s tactful statement about not wanting to derail the celebratory atmosphere of the day.

The Washington Post sums it up perfectly: “The commencement speaker purity bug has hit Smith College.” Calling it a “bug” is the right classification, for it is certainly both a defect and an apparently contagious infection that demonstrates the extent to which American universities are failing their students while pocketing the tuition money (about $45,000 in Smith’s case).

Meanwhile at Syracuse, the New Yorker’s David Remnick apparently gave a commencement address that deviated from the airy, ego-boosting flattery to which America’s college-age toddlers are accustomed, and was thus not altogether well received. Remnick’s speech was a litany of liberal policy clichés, and so there was plenty to disagree with. But it was also a challenge to the graduates:

Read More

International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde has become the latest commencement speaker to be chased off by American academia’s guardians of the eternally closed minds. After protests over Lagarde’s planned graduation speech at Smith College from professors and students, Lagarde bowed out, echoing Condoleezza Rice’s tactful statement about not wanting to derail the celebratory atmosphere of the day.

The Washington Post sums it up perfectly: “The commencement speaker purity bug has hit Smith College.” Calling it a “bug” is the right classification, for it is certainly both a defect and an apparently contagious infection that demonstrates the extent to which American universities are failing their students while pocketing the tuition money (about $45,000 in Smith’s case).

Meanwhile at Syracuse, the New Yorker’s David Remnick apparently gave a commencement address that deviated from the airy, ego-boosting flattery to which America’s college-age toddlers are accustomed, and was thus not altogether well received. Remnick’s speech was a litany of liberal policy clichés, and so there was plenty to disagree with. But it was also a challenge to the graduates:

What gnaws at you? And what will you do about it?

Is it the way we treat and warehouse our elderly as our population grows older? Is it the way we isolate and underserve the physically and mentally disabled. Is it our absurd American fascination with guns and our insistence on valuing the so called rights of ownership over the clear and present danger of gun violence? What will we–what will you–do about the widening divides of class and opportunity in this country? You are, dear friends, about to enter an economy that is increasing winner take all. Part of this is the result of globalization. But do we just throw up our hands and say that’s the way it is? And what about our refusal to look squarely at the degradation of the planet we inhabit? In the last election cycle many candidates refused even to acknowledge the hard science, irrefutable science, of climate change. The president, while readily accepting the facts, has done far too little to alter them. How long are we, are you, prepared to wait?

As I said, plenty to disagree with. But good for Remnick. He is addressing a generation that seems to think hashtags will catch war criminals and casting a vote for a messianic snake-oil salesman will heal the planet. They need to be reminded that they should actually do something with their knowledge, and if they don’t like it–well, they can suck it up.

But that last point raises a slightly different question. Is using the phrase “their knowledge” too presumptuous for today’s university climate? In its story on Lagarde, the Wall Street Journal talks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Greg Lukianoff:

Mr. Lukianoff said the trend is clearly growing. According to a tally by his group, between 1987 and 2008, there were 48 protests of planned speeches, not all for graduations, that led to 21 incidents of an invited guest not speaking. Since 2009 there have been 95 protests, resulting in 39 cancellations, according to Mr. Lukianoff’s group.

After recounting previous speakers at Smith, including such liberal leading lights as Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem, and last year Arianna Huffington, the Journal gets the following quote from a student who possesses neither self-awareness nor even a tangential relationship with the facts:

“The issue isn’t that we’re against debate but that we’re only hearing one side of the debate continuously,” said Nandi Marumo, a 22-year-old junior at Smith, who signed the petition against Ms. Lagarde. “We hear the same narrative from every person, from the media, from everything.”

The question, then, is not whether American universities are producing ever more totalitarian-minded brats. Of course they are reinforcing such closed-mindedness; they are leftist institutions steeped in leftist values. This is a problem, and should be addressed. But the out-of-control speech police on college campuses, combined with the unwillingness to even listen to those who might disagree with them, raises the distinct possibility that colleges are producing brainless authoritarians.

What if college, in other words, is making the next generation stupid? Not uniformly, of course. There will always be exceptions, and there may even be a rebellion against what is increasingly making college the most expensive babysitting service in the modern world. But college administrators are now faced with the conundrum of students who pay them gobs of money to keep them uninformed and shielded from critical thinking. It’s a challenge administrators have to deal with–and the sooner, the better.

Read Less

The Fight Against BDS on the Left

Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

Read More

Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

Because this story is delusional and vile, it is no surprise that those who wish to tell it must try to shut up anyone who objects. But the fight against them is consequently a fight for the free, truth-seeking soul of the university. If we are to win that fight in higher education, we will need people on the left to take it up. Fortunately, Schneiderman and Friedman are not the only ones who have noticed and spoken or written against a growing anti-liberalism in whose eyes, as Michelle Goldberg puts it in the Nation, “old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system.” Consider the founding statement of the new Academic Advisory Council for the Third Narrative, a left-leaning organization that favors a two-state solution and opposes BDS. These “progressive scholars and academics” reject “all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.” They single out the academic boycotts that have been a favored tool of BDS because they are “discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge.”

I understand why some friends of Israel are hard on people like the members of the Academic Advisory Council who, in the name of evenhandedness, feel compelled to blame both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for “rhetoric … which demonizes and dehumanizes the other,” without acknowledging, as A.J. Adler complains, the “institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” This “pox on both your houses” line, which the Council also applies to the debate in the U.S., is a little hard to take when one of the houses in question seeks to delegitimize Israel while the other merely seeks to defend it. Nonetheless, many of the scholars in question, including Cary Nelson, Sharon Ann Musher, and Kenneth Waltzer have been tireless, courageous, and effective opponents of BDS and champions of the principles that ought to animate our colleges and universities. I do not see a path to victory against BDS in higher education that does not involve an alliance with them.

Alliance does not imply agreement about everything, and we can look forward to debating such allies about how best to pursue peace. We will have plenty of time to do so, since our BDS opponents have no interest in debating. Two weeks ago, Jacobson, who will be at Vassar on Monday, issued a challenge to 39 professors there, who have signed a letter in favor of an academic boycott of Israel. Would any of them be willing to debate him publicly?

Not one of those professors, who work for a college whose mission statement speaks of “respectful debate,” took him up on it.

Read Less

“Shut Up,” BDS Explained: An “Open Forum” at Vassar

It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

Read More

It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

So members of Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine “staged an action against” the on-campus part of the class, which included picketing, urging students to drop the course, and making a lot of noise (the only dispute seems to be whether the noise could be described as “ululating” or not). Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman, two of the course instructors, complained to college officials about the protest; the protesters, most of whom were “people of color,” cried racism; and so the open forum was held.

Weiss is explicit about the character of this “open forum”:

The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

In other words, at least at this Vassar forum, it was not even possible to have a debate about the desirability of BDS because the students who support BDS have no intention of engaging in a debate or even letting their opponents speak without disrupting them. But such “belligerence may be necessary,” Weiss argues, to make sure that the right side wins.

Let’s review to whom the belligerence is directed. Not right-wing Zionists, if there happen to be any at Vassar, but people with impeccable liberal credentials, like, as Weiss notes, Jill Schneiderman, who think that attention should be drawn to Israeli injustice but are wary of describing Israel as a blot on civilization and doubtful that boycott is a wise strategy.

BDS supporters, who usually say they are fighting a “taboo” against discussing Israel on college campuses, rarely concede that they actually think the taboo is against supporting Israel. But that is just what Weiss does: “Norman Finkelstein said some time ago that you can’t be for Israel on college campuses, and I was seeing this before my eyes.” Indeed, the “intellectual labors are done, the activists are moving. The public square will increasingly belong to the warriors of both sides.”

But Weiss is kidding himself if the thinks that a movement that is unpopular even on the left will win by trying to shout its opponents down. Even on our college campuses, which are much less sympathetic to Israel than the general public is, the politics of BDS can shock. Schneiderman was sympathetic enough to Weiss to invite him to the forum. After the forum, she had this to say: “last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” She says of Weiss’s reporting on the meeting: “This is only one example of how Phil Weiss uses facts flexibly only when they suit his agenda.”

Some BDS supporters claim to welcome the attention the American Studies Association boycott brought to the BDS movement, even as they try to hide their activities. I bet that publicity is going to hurt in the long term, at least in the United States where, even on college campuses, much less the “public square,” trying to shut up everyone who disagrees with you does not wear well.

Read Less

Academia’s Bigoted Feedback Loop

Yesterday, James Taranto discussed the left’s cultural contempt for middle America. He quotes the American Spectator’s Jeffrey Lord, who argued that the Democratic Party’s elite around John F. Kennedy had built up a river of resentment against the non-elite–such as, at the time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson–but that Kennedy served as something of a dam, keeping it in check. Après JFK, le deluge:

Slowly this contempt for the American people spread to institutions that were not government, manifesting itself in a thousand different ways. It infected the media, academe and Hollywood, where stars identified with middle-America like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were eclipsed in the spotlight by leftists like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda.

This is certainly problematic enough, both for liberalism and the American culture it relentlessly targeted. But it’s also worth pointing out that the corrupting of cultural institutions creates a feedback loop, producing political personalities who feed on the spite and bigotry of the institutions from which they emerged. And this is the feedback loop with which Mitt Romney, as a high-profile Mormon candidate, will have to contend, as Idaho State professor Thomas C. Terry writes in Inside Higher Ed.

Read More

Yesterday, James Taranto discussed the left’s cultural contempt for middle America. He quotes the American Spectator’s Jeffrey Lord, who argued that the Democratic Party’s elite around John F. Kennedy had built up a river of resentment against the non-elite–such as, at the time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson–but that Kennedy served as something of a dam, keeping it in check. Après JFK, le deluge:

Slowly this contempt for the American people spread to institutions that were not government, manifesting itself in a thousand different ways. It infected the media, academe and Hollywood, where stars identified with middle-America like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were eclipsed in the spotlight by leftists like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda.

This is certainly problematic enough, both for liberalism and the American culture it relentlessly targeted. But it’s also worth pointing out that the corrupting of cultural institutions creates a feedback loop, producing political personalities who feed on the spite and bigotry of the institutions from which they emerged. And this is the feedback loop with which Mitt Romney, as a high-profile Mormon candidate, will have to contend, as Idaho State professor Thomas C. Terry writes in Inside Higher Ed.

Terry begins the article with a story: He attended an academic conference in 2008, and when the lunch conversation turned to the election, and Mitt Romney, it took a sadly predictable turn:

“I couldn’t vote for a Mormon,” one professor said. There was some polite (or perhaps impolite) head-bobbing. “It’s a cult. Very intolerant, and their opinions about women, and, well … ” and his voice trailed off.

This, in academia, is apparently the norm, not the exception, Terry writes:

Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: “The Simpsons”) for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.

Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans . . . well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable to publicly express bias against Mormons?

Walter Russell Mead responds by reminding readers the mainstream media has reflected this same anti-Mormon bias. He lists just a few of recent memory, such as Harold Bloom’s New York Times piece on his fears of a theocracy–though Mead thinks Bloom is probably “more elitist misanthrope than bigot; his hatred and loathing for Mormonism is part of a broader and deeper disgust with almost everything that the common people think or do in the contemporary United States.”

The Times is, of course, a repeat offender. Columnist Charles Blow expressed his own venomous bigotry on Twitter, and the Times stood behind Blow rather than discipline him, showing such bigotry to have a comfortable home at the Times. But in the Times’s defense, Maureen Dowd got in on the act too and, well, they can’t fire everybody, can they?

Salon’s Joan Walsh and Sally Denton joined in too, among others. As Mead asks in another post on the subject: “Bigotry is bad; how hard is that to remember?”

More difficult than it should be, certainly, for the “tolerant” left. And it is so difficult precisely because of the feedback loop. University professors shaping young minds casually express this bigotry, as do columnists and editorialists at major newspapers and online magazines. And David Axelrod, the Obama campaign strategist, has continued stoking these fires even after he promised to help put them out.

Perhaps he doesn’t mean to instigate widespread bigotry. But that’s the problem with acceptable ethnic and religious hate, isn’t it? The ignorance becomes so profound that the products of these institutions may not fully understand their own sheer moral failure.

Read Less

Silencing Dissent About Black Studies

Author Naomi Schaefer Riley was an ornament to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog where she provided a keen dissenting voice pointing out the follies of modern academia. Riley, the author of the brilliant The Faculty LoungesAnd Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, is a critic of the liberal orthodoxies of the American campus. She has earned the enmity of the sector’s establishment by pointing out the con games played by universities that have profited from the creation of sham disciplines and the way college faculties have insulated themselves by focusing largely on the publication of arcane academic papers filled with jargon that makes no sense to anyone outside of their narrow fields.

Having such a voice of reason at a publication like the Chronicle–which caters to the residents of those faculty lounges about which Riley has written–was an important and perhaps daring decision on the part of its editors. But apparently there is a limit to their willingness to allow anyone to speak the truth about the academic world. After Riley wrote a post pointing out the absurdity at the heart of a recent Chronicle feature that highlighted the “young guns” at Black Studies departments around the nation, the publication says “thousands” of its readers protested. Rather than stand by their writer, the Chronicle caved to criticism in the most abject manner possible. In a craven note to its readers, editor Liz McMillen claimed Riley’s post “did not meet the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” and fired her. In shamefully throwing Riley under the bus, the Chronicle has not only done her an injustice. It has undermined, perhaps fatally, its credibility as a journal of thought as well as making it clear it will no longer countenance any dissent from academia’s wisdom on race and gender studies.

Read More

Author Naomi Schaefer Riley was an ornament to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog where she provided a keen dissenting voice pointing out the follies of modern academia. Riley, the author of the brilliant The Faculty LoungesAnd Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, is a critic of the liberal orthodoxies of the American campus. She has earned the enmity of the sector’s establishment by pointing out the con games played by universities that have profited from the creation of sham disciplines and the way college faculties have insulated themselves by focusing largely on the publication of arcane academic papers filled with jargon that makes no sense to anyone outside of their narrow fields.

Having such a voice of reason at a publication like the Chronicle–which caters to the residents of those faculty lounges about which Riley has written–was an important and perhaps daring decision on the part of its editors. But apparently there is a limit to their willingness to allow anyone to speak the truth about the academic world. After Riley wrote a post pointing out the absurdity at the heart of a recent Chronicle feature that highlighted the “young guns” at Black Studies departments around the nation, the publication says “thousands” of its readers protested. Rather than stand by their writer, the Chronicle caved to criticism in the most abject manner possible. In a craven note to its readers, editor Liz McMillen claimed Riley’s post “did not meet the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” and fired her. In shamefully throwing Riley under the bus, the Chronicle has not only done her an injustice. It has undermined, perhaps fatally, its credibility as a journal of thought as well as making it clear it will no longer countenance any dissent from academia’s wisdom on race and gender studies.

McMillen’s note is doubly offensive because its characterization of Riley’s post is incorrect, and because she also chose to grovel to the mob by apologizing for a previous editor’s note in which she invited readers to debate the author’s opinion. Though she now says her previous note was wrong to “elevate Riley’s post to the level of informed opinion,” the only thing that is clear from reading her obsequious apology is that in allowing Riley’s critics to dictate editorial policy, she has debased the Chronicle and herself to a point where neither can be taken seriously.

In examining this controversy, it must be asserted from the outset that nothing Riley wrote was offensive or lacking in civility, as McMillen charged. Riley’s offense was not one of tone or fact but rather in her willingness to say Black Studies is an academic discipline rooted in and consumed by the politics of victimization with little scholarly value.

Riley pointed out something that was obvious to any objective reader of the Chronicle’s paean to those coming in this field: their dissertation topics are trivial and motivated solely by what she aptly calls “left-wing victimization claptrap” in which racism is the answer to every conceivable question.

The dissertations she mentioned speak volumes about the low level of discourse that passes for academic achievement in this field. That topics such as black midwives being left out of natural birth literature, the notion that the promotion of single family homes is racist and the branding of black conservatives as opponents of civil rights are the work of the best and brightest in black studies tell us all we need to know about why Riley is right about the need to eliminate this form of academic fraud.

In saying this, Riley was blunt but transgressed no rules of journalism other than the need not to offend powerful constituencies. But for those devoted to the promotion of this sector of academia, for Riley to have pointed out that the emperor has no clothes is an unforgivable offense that must be punished by branding her as a racist who must be banished from the pages of the magazine. The only “standard” that Riley did not live up to in this post was the obligation to say what many on the left want to hear. Contrary to McMillen, the betrayal here was not on the part of the Chronicle for having published Riley, but in firing her in order to appease an unreasoning pack of academic jackals howling for the blood of anyone with the temerity to point out their shortcomings.

It is painful to watch a respected publication like the Chronicle descend to this level of groupthink. However, this episode does illustrate how out of touch with reality its editors and many of its readers are. The defenestration of Naomi Schaefer Riley only makes plain the depths to which those determined to silence dissent against academic orthodoxy will sink.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.