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Fired Professor Steven Salaita’s Speech at Columbia College Chicago on Israel, Civility & Academic Freedom

*Author’s note: Professor Steven Salaita was terminated from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in  because he sent out tweets through his personal Twitter account that were critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza.

For background on his case, here is a previous post outlining what happened. For biographical information on Steven Salaita, here’s a good profile The News-Gazette (in East Illinois) published on him.

Salaita pushed the Board of Trustees at UIUC to reinstate him. They refused to do so, and Salaita is in the process of preparing a lawsuit, which he has not officially announced yet but one can presume will be filed because he is retaining a team of lawyers.

This week, Salaita has been touring college and university campuses in the Chicago area to speak about the issue of academic freedom of campuses, to share his story with students and to discuss what can be done next to fight for him and restore academic freedom at UIUC.  

He spoke at Columbia College Chicago on Wednesday, October 8, along with one of the college’s professors, Iymen Chehade, who had his academic freedom violated earlier this year when the college cut one of his classes after he screened the Academy Award-nominated film, “5 Broken Cameras” and a student complained about bias.

As a Columbia College alum, I detested what happened to Chehade this year. I also would like to see more support and solidarity shown by faculty and students on campus. Nevertheless, the speech was attended by only ten or twenty Columbia College students from the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter on campus, which hosted the event. There were very few Columbia College faculty members there in the audience, if any.

Here is recorded audio of Salaita’s speech and the full transcript of his October 8 speech. It is about a twenty-minute speech.

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Before I say anything about Palestine or the University of Illinois, let me first acknowledge that what happened to me has been happening to ethnic, sexual and cultural minorities in academe for decades. African-Americans, especially, and it continues to happen today.

A shameful irony is that Jews were long marginalized in the academy because of their supposed dangers to Anglo-civility; victim to rationalizations for their exclusion that sadly don’t look terribly different than the ones now being used against supporters Palestinian human rights.

The suppression of blackness and indigeneity pre-dates the purge of Palestine, and in many ways contextualizes and sustains it. The regulation of deviant bodies, ideas and identities has influenced American campuses since their inception.

In my situation, I don’t think we should overlook the sheer arrogance with which the Board of Trustees has conducted itself. When James Montgomery, the only trustee to vote in favor of my appointment, finished an extraordinarily moving speech about his experiences of racism, board members responded with ill-advised and unfunny jokes.

Board members have provided numerous instances of boorishness. Ali Abunimah caught system president Robert Easter in a flat-out lie. The Board and the chancellor can’t seem to get their story straight.

Watching my own firing happen publicly on the internet was surreal but not just for me. Anybody who tuned in could see how the corporatization of academe functions in real time.

I think more than anything the egregiousness of UIUC’s decision illustrates that the furtive codes of campus repression have become less necessary.

Academe has never been free. Universities don’t like to be openly repressive, however. There are countless mechanisms in place to ensure conformity to the imperatives of the powerful and wealthy. These mechanisms regulate tone, content, action and access. They will become unnecessary only when campuses become openly dictatorial.

UIUC took a significant and unapologetic step in that direction. If boards and other administrators can simply decide without faculty consultation or the inconvenience of shared governance who is fit to teach and research, then the paradigms of higher education change in ways that contravene the very purpose of the university.

I have no nostalgia about our academic past or of the utility of free speech in American society as a whole. Rights have never been comprehensive. But with this new paradigm, academic freedom won’t even exist in theory.

Please bear in mind the Board members have zero qualifications to evaluate my teaching or scholarship. They’ve never taught college. They know nothing about indigenous peoples—American Indians, the Israeli/Palestine conflict, Arab Americans, Palestine, the Middle East, Pacific Islanders, military occupation, native nationalism, literary criticism, hermeneutics, critical theory, decolonization, scholarship, journal publishing, peer review, university presses, departmental service, advising, grading, curriculum or how to compose a solitary footnote. How exactly this makes them qualified to make hiring decisions on behalf of the American Indian Studies program is a mystery.

Questions arise about funding. They have an easy answer. It’s always in some way about funding, isn’t it? If you crunch the raw numbers though, it’s clear the university doesn’t receive a windfall from it’s pro-Israel donors. Steve Miller’s largest gift appears to have been half a billion. Other donors cited figures of a few hundred thousand. This is chump change to any huge research university.

The value of Zionist donors isn’t merely about bank balances. It’s about respectability and the unquantifiable value that accompanies it.

Siding with Israel isn’t necessarily about making money. It’s also about political ambition, conformity, establishment bonafides, state power. In other words, about the maintaining status quo. It’s about keeping power consolidated among the elite. It’s about not setting a terrible precedent of allowing the colonized a say in their own futures.

Political capital coheres and can never be precisely measured by supporting the preferred position of the elite. There’s rarely risk in siding with the powerful, but never is there dignity in such a choice.

Academics themselves are often complicit in restrictions on our freedom so I don’t think it’s helpful to create firm distinction between faculty and administration. The distinction should be made around faculty interest and administrative interest. One needn’t be an administrator to supplement administrative interests. For this reason, I hope we complicate academic freedom even as we vigorously defend it.

For example, contingent faculty have no functional academic freedom (or adjunct as they are sometimes called). They can be fired for unpopular speech without much recourse. It’s not just finances that compel administrators to rely more heavily on untendered labor. It ensures a power balance that strongly favors the administration.

The government has long relied on the private workplace to stifle speech rights. Where as one hypothetically cannot be imprisoned for speech, one can be fired by private employers for it, a mechanism of plutocratic control.

It’s a further entanglement of state and corporation, and a further entanglement of corporation and university.

Scholarship, for instance, is never supposed to be political. What does political mean?

Basically, fighting injustice, taking a stand, expressing an opinion, laying out a set of ethics. Scholarship and scholars are supposed to be above such trifling pursuits. We demystify the things we study, but we don’t participate in them. We explicate, but we do not manipulate. We’re like the film crew of a nature show. We document and explain but never intervene when one animal devours another.

To be called political is to immediately become suspect among one’s colleagues; to be marked as “radical,” another term with its own history of coerciveness. Serious scholars can never be radical.

Let’s look at the term most relevant to our current situation: civility, which is a reboot of the long-standing canard of collegiality. I believe civility, although it performs the same coercive function as collegiality, is far more insidious and threatening.

I mentioned informal modes of repression. They’re not informal in the sense of being random but in the sense of being unauthorized or extralegal. All industrial democracies rely to some degree on informal repression, what Chomsky called manufacturing consent and Gramsci before him termed hegemony.

It is endemic to universities in particular because the conceits of shared governance and academic freedom must be delimited without open suppression, even though open suppression happens plenty. Hence, collegiality as a measure of performance. It’s a sprawling and subjective word, which is precisely its utility.

I’m not going to attempt a definition because I consider it a pointless enterprise. I want to examine instead how its ambiguity facilitate conformity to majoritarian sensibilities.

Valuable ideas disrupt, reorder, undermine, confront, subvert, unsettle, upset, menace, admonish, forebode. Critical thinking is fundamentally incompatible with conformity, which is collegiality’s primary desire.

Collegiality largely performs two functions. It can be used as a pretext to punish somebody, who’s work is stellar but who doesn’t fit in with colleagues. Here the severe problems of race, class, gender, sexuality and culture should be obvious. And it can name unconventional scholarship as inferior because it doesn’t recycle established ideas and methodologies.

Collegiality is the etiquette of submission. It’s impossible to be collegial when challenging the common sense of corporate dominion no matter how polite you state the criticism.

Now, collegiality’s given away to civility, which creates a new set of challenges to academic freedom. The usefulness of the term as a silencing mechanism is apparent by how many upper administrators have embraced it.

It’s basic function is identical to that of collegiality but it more explicitly evokes colonial violence. The very act of using uncivil to describe supporters of Palestine or any other site of decolonization is a terrible irony. The accusation locates the subject in the wretchedness of sub-humanity but implicates the speaker in centuries of colonization and genocide.

Remember, I was hired in the American Indian Studies program. I still shake my head that the powers that be decided to rationalize their abrogation of academic freedom and faculty governance by invoking the terminology of new world colonization. It actually puts me in mind of George W. Bush calling his war on Iraq a crusade. It’s another reminder that there is no appreciable correlation between intelligence and authority.

The university’s actions are a deliberate attack on the fields of American Indian and indigenous studies and on ethnic studies and the humanities, more broadly.

As throughout American history, natives are an inconvenience to a grander democratic vision that cannot be realized without violence, and that erases the elements of indigeneity that it cannot appropriate. The assumption underlying every justification of the administration’s decision is that indigenous peoples cannot make autonomous decisions. They require the oversight of their more sage and responsible superiors. It’s a perfect allegory of federal Indian policy, only it’s not really allegorical.

Civility is not a state of mind. It’s a regime.

Let’s look at an apparently trenchant word: students. The administration is doing everything for the students, right? Never mind the students have been rigorously patronized and infantilized. But which students are the administrators purporting to help?

Let me point out two things: one, that the students in this instance aren’t communities of actual human beings but an invention of university management. And, two, that it’s the most privileged among the student body who are beneficiaries of the administration’s magnanimity.

Students of color, queer and transexual students, low income students, students in the margins—Management rarely includes them in their deliberations. They’re useful only in so far as the conceits of multiculturalism can foreclose real democratic participation.

No matter how much these students pay, no matter how much they contribute to the vibrancy of intellectual life on campus, they can never be students quite as authoritatively as their normative counterparts.

I had lunch with the students of [Students for Justice in Palestine] from Loyola today and it absolutely reinforced everything I just said. While the administration is busy protecting its students and coddling its students and infantilizing its students, make-believe students, it’s busy attacking and throwing under the bus Palestinian students.

This is a problem of access and representation on many campuses. UIUC is happy to feature American Indian Studies in its diversity pamphleteering but is much less eager to support even nominal acts of departmental sovereignty. Students on the margins, in fact, are constantly made to justify their existence in the elegant spaces of academe.

Take the oft-repeated contention that Jewish students would be uncomfortable in my classes. I leave aside the assumption that discomfort is somehow inimical to a useful education and the qualifications of gentiles to decide who is and is not Jewish. I would never wish on Jewish students even a hint of acrimony, one reason why it’s so discomfiting that they are homogenized as proto-Zionists in this characterization of my pedagogy.

I oppose the policies of the state of Israel. That’s the extent of my engagement with Jewish culture, which is to say I have very little engagement with it at all.

If people feel attacked on a cultural level when somebody condemns a nation state, then that’s a problem of ethno-nationalism, not of political critique. There’s nothing in my record, as a scholar or teacher, that indicates even a scintilla of anti-Semitism.

I go on record again to say I detest the phenomenon. For those of you kind people, who are following me around stop to stop and tweeting out of context everything I say just to prove what a horrible human being [I am], tweet that. Copy it down right now. Tweet that. I’m going to repeat it. I detest anti-Semitism. No context needed. Tweet that.

But take any Zionist ideologue—and there are many of them running classrooms—they support, at least tacitly, ethnic cleansing, military occupation, displacement, home demolition, ethnocracy. In short, a profoundly undemocratic state whose violations of human rights are well-documented.

How are Palestinian, Arab or Muslim students to feel in one of their classes? It’s always the marginal, the undesirable, the wretched, who must justify their humanity to the majority. The structural violence of the normative, meanwhile, gets to define itself as benign.

And why anyway must folks who have never uttered an anti-Semitic statement constantly make our opposition to anti-Semitism explicit? Nobody else has to proclaim opposition to things they’ve never endorsed.

More important, why don’t those who repeatedly disparage Palestinians ever have to answer to their troublesome beliefs?

I would love to see folks who condone the slaughter of children and the illegal settlement of foreign territory disavow themselves of anti-Arab racism.

It’s because Israel is the default norm of civility. Israelis are assumed to be human. To criticize them then is inherently aggressive. Palestinians, on the other hand, must loudly denounce aggression at every imaginable moment in order to be considered human in the first place. (Every SJP member around the country will tell you how true that is.)

Even as we suffer the unrelenting violence of Israeli colonization, our barbarity is atavistic and imminent. It precedes our subjectivity, restricts our earthly presence and marks us as inferior. We can achieve the lofty status of pitiable only when we grovel.

We constitute a species that must genuflect in order to earn the trust of those by whom we were conquered and defined.

I’m no anti-Semite. I say it clearly. I now await my detractors’ proclamations that they consider Palestinians worthy of respect and equality.

Israel is losing the PR battle, the proverbial hearts and minds. Its supporters in turn are lashing out with the sort of desperation endemic to any strong party in decline.

They’re punitive and belligerent in the absence of honest debate. This is about deeply undemocratic power reasserting itself, refusing to cede even a word to Palestinians in a deeply compromised public discourse. Simply stated, it’s colonial paranoia.

This should be easy for anybody to see. If your first impulse upon encountering anything you dislike is to punish the speaker, then you tacitly confess that your position has no merit.

And now civility is spreading through universities as quickly as settlers overwhelmed the American continent. Administrators love the word. It means anything they want it to mean and always implies something sinister, without having to justify or explain. The term perfectly encapsulates the sheer force of panic that pervades the elite when they need to find an effortless way to hamper debate.

No argument to be made. No problem. Shut the entire thing down.

This is particularly troublesome when it comes to faculty governance. Do we want experts in their fields in charge of hiring or do we concede that difficult task to the Simon Wiesenthal Center?

If you want to support me, support the people of Palestine. Support natives still dispossessed of land and resources. Support African-Americans brutalized by the police. Support anybody subject to systematic state violence.

My having a job changes nothing. I am merely a symbol of the stark imperatives of the wealthy and well-connected. We all are really. Unless the system changes, at a basic level everybody’s merely buying shares in a neoliberal corporation with the power to dissolve our interest at the moment we become an inconvenience.

There’s one thing I remember most from the episodes of unmitigated brutality in Gaza: the ice cream freezers. Nothing affected me more. Few things better exemplified the gaiety and innocence of childhood then rummaging through boxes of frozen confections.

During Israel’s recent bombing campaign, however, the ice cream freezers weren’t stacked with popsicles and sorbet. Instead, they stored the bodies of dead children.

The symbolism is endless. Ice cream and bodies, they usually intermingle in messy harmony. This time though the bodies had replaced the treats. The children had nothing to imbibe. Their corpses were on display for a much different sort of rummaging.

They were in ice cream freezers because morgues had run out of space, a problem not only of warfare but of overcrowded neighborhoods and geographical entrapment. Gaza’s lack of electricity threatened rapid decomposition.

The children rested atop one another in containers that likely provided some of their happiest moments when they were alive.

There’s nothing poetic about this juxtaposition. It’s terrible algorithm of combustion and confinement. Thus, I tweeted.

The evidence in my case is clear. I’m no anti-Semite. I’m no terrorist. I’m no bully. I’m no savage. I’m a man who was fired because I condemned Israeli policy in language appropriate to a horrible occasion rather than in the meek platitudes of civility.

I prefer moral clarity. After all, there is nothing civil about dead children in an ice cream freezer.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."