Friday, February 08, 2013

Brooklyn BDS Megapost!

It wouldn't do to pass on this controversy without giving my thoughts (more than I already have, anyway). You know, for posterity.

On free speech and academic freedom

1) College departments have the right to sponsor events featuring speakers with controversial, even arguably racist or anti-Semitic, views. That's part of academic freedom. There's also no general rule that controversial speakers must be "balanced" with the "other side", though this might be prudent in certain cases.

2) Academic freedom means that such decisions cannot come with material repercussions (such as slashing funding).

3) However, academic freedom does not immunize such decisions from criticism. Indeed, we should be quite disconcerted if a college department decides to sponsor or promote such events, and it is legitimate to say so.

4) Sponsoring an event does not imply endorsement of its views. But it does imply endorsement of a certain kind -- that the event is "in bounds," that it is within the pantheon of legitimate and valid thoughts that it is worthwhile to consider. This is why I'm fine with the Economics department sponsoring a talk by Richard Epstein but would be less thrilled if they brought in some gold standard nut.

5) Academic departments have the right to decide whether a given viewpoint is "in bounds". Similar to the above, this decision is also subject to criticism.

6) If an academic department is going to sponsor an event, it should be open to all students. If pro-Israel students were systematically excluded from attending the BDS event, that is as problematic as forcing Brooklyn to cancel the event would have been.

7) Eric Alterman wins the "best overall" award for his column on this subject.

On BDS and the event itself

1) Yair Rosenberg is right to call out the media for whitewashing what BDS is actually about. It is not just generic "criticism of Israel", and opposing it in no way implies that one opposes all criticism of Israel.

2) This NYT report on the controversy is pretty terrible on that front.

3) Referring to protesters outside, Butler remarked that "as you can hear, unconditional supporters of Israel.” Apparently, she's been reading LGM's comments.

4) Butler also apparently made the following argument: Criticism of Israel can only be anti-Semitic if all Jews supported Israel, and "Honestly, what can really be said about the Jewish people as a whole?" It is difficult to think of a criterion for anti-Semitism more calculated to neuter the term (it's not racist if Herman Cain agrees with me!) -- which, one suspects, is the point.