Monday, October 31, 2011

Death To....?

The Times Higher Ed has a piece up on the recent outburst by a Kent State history professor who yelled "death to Israel!" after a fierce exchange with a Bedouin Israeli ex-diplomat. The remark was swiftly condemned by the university President, and I'm reasonably content with that outcome. Unlike the recent UCI case, the remark was neither intended to nor had the effect of permanently disrupting the diplomat's event. And while this particular professor's record isn't exactly unblemished (he wrote a column praising a suicide bomber, and is alleged to contributed to a Jihadist website), there isn't the sort of pattern or practice of behavior that would lead, in my view, to a hostile environment. At the end of the day, he behaved like a dick, and was called out on it by the President of the university. Can't ask for more than that.

But AAUP President Cary Nelson (and my Illinois colleague, in the English department) disagrees with me, and I found his statement somewhat interesting:
Calling out a political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community,” he said. “Expressive outbursts do not substitute for rational analysis, but they have long played a role in our national political life. More surprising, to be sure, is President Lefton’s invention of an absurd form of hospitality: you must not question the moral legitimacy or the right to exist of a guest’s home country. Awareness of history would suggest such challenges are routine elements of international life.

The first half of this is true, but also somewhat besides the point. Obviously, expressive outbursts can be a part of national discourse. So too are critiques of those outbursts. Academic freedom doesn't mean freedom from criticism; to the extent the university president thinks this professor acted like a jerk, he shouldn't be immunized from being told so.

The second half, by contrast, just strikes me as strange. It's a "routine element of international life" for persons to have the very existence of their home states be challenged as a moral affront? I'm genuinely curious what other examples Mr. Nelson has in mind. After all, one thing one often hears from folks who think anti-Zionism plays by its own rules is that one essentially never hears the call "death to China" or "death to France." It isn't just guests from those countries which are spared the indignity -- such rhetoric isn't part of our discursive vocabulary at all for other countries.

I'm a little baffled, then, at what Nelson is referring to that he thinks is such a routine part of being part of international life. Any ideas?


Matt said...

Well, China denies that Tibet and Taiwan are nations (though Taiwan, while acting like one, doesn't always seem to think it is one, either). There's, of course, the right-wing claim that Jordan should be thought of as the Palestinian state, denying the legitimacy of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. And a small group viewed the reunification of East and West Germany as a dark hour, indeed. I think some anti-colonialist rhetoric could be construed as denying the right of the US to exist.

So, various ways of forming countries are pretty routinely called into question. Never France, though, and that's an interesting question.

Thing is, I'm not sure "Death to" can be adequately described as "question[ing] the moral legitimacy or the right to exist." At best it's rather euphemistic, no?

PG said...

Agreed with Matt that one sees challenges to several countries' legitimacy as nation-states; that such challenges seem to be rarely made to those nations that got into the theorizing-nation-states game early; and that "Death to" is probably not really a way of making an argument about borders or forms of government.

Consider one of the most common messages one sees in foreign protests: "Death to America." Almost never are these signs and chants related to questioning the legitimacy of the formation of the U.S., and most of those stating the message know little and care less about the questionable aspects of America's formation (stealing land from Native Americans, revolting against the British, etc.). "Death to America" is pretty clearly understood as a statement of hostility toward the U.S. for its current actions. Handing back the Southwest to Mexico would have no effect whatsoever on the sentiment. People protesting France will employ the "Death to France" message.

Someone who yells "Death to Israel!" and then claims he just meant to challenge Israel's right to exist as a nation-state is either lying or an idiot. The "moral legitimacy" meaning is far more plausible, as I think most contexts in which "Death to" messages are employed are ones in which the speaker wants to communicate that the nation has acted in a morally wrong way.

Matt said...

"Prof. Pino did not explain what he meant by death to Israel...

"Closer to home, though, where the Islamic Jihad's calls of "Death to Israel" come wrapped in Iranian steel and 40 pounds of explosives, the message is sharp as shrapnel: a call for genocide."

I think, actually, the phrase is a little slipperier still.