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Cary Nelson: The Lackey of Power

[Cary Nelson. Image by Sage Ross.] [Cary Nelson. Image by Sage Ross.]

Israel recommenced its offensive against Gaza by taking the life of a ten-year-old Palestinian child, whose death will now disappear into the anonymity of this assault’s brutal statistics. This latest upsurge in the ongoing violence that is the Israeli occupation has turned around the deaths of children: the Palestinian youths gratuitously killed by IDF snipers; the three settler teenagers murdered on the West Bank by a maverick group, which Israel cynically used as an excuse for its incursion into the occupied territories and the further murder of Palestinians young and old; the hideous torture and burning alive of Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli “nationalists,” encouraged no doubt by Netanyahu’s calls for vengeance. Hundreds of Palestinian children have since been slaughtered, thousands more traumatized and wounded. Meanwhile Zionist commentators continue to maunder on about how Palestinians do not value their children, as civilized people do.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Professor Cary Nelson seems to think that the real obscenity is the expression of anger and outrage at this ongoing slaughter. To him, Palestinian scholar and activist Steven Salaita is “venomous,” “loathsome and foul-mouthed” for insisting by tweet: "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already." Nelson goes on to say that "Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone.”

Let us set aside for a moment the evident and unexceptional logic of Salaita’s tweet, which pithily expresses the contradiction between liberal Zionists’ pretence that Israel, an explicitly and constitutively exclusionary state, stands on the side of civilization and the fact that its exclusionary vision of a Jewish state for a Jewish people has always required the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, including if not especially their children. As the Gaza campaign opened, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked declared, to the acclaim of her Facebook followers, that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy” and that Palestinian mothers should be slaughtered, because they bear “little snakes.” For Nelson, confronting the murderous logic of an ethno-nationalist Zionism that has long declared the Palestinians to be a “demographic threat” is less important than justifying the dismissal of Salaita from a position at his university. 

For Nelson, it is not the truth or the analysis that Salaita succinctly and passionately expresses, but the passion of the expression that puts him beyond the pale of civility. Any minority scholar, or anyone with the slightest awareness of the racist history of the United States and of its academies, anyone who has sat through all too many tenure meetings in which non-white scholars are being evaluated, will instantly recognize the rhetoric. Black men are angry. Asians are whining when they are not being model minorities. Latinos are passionate and sentimental. As for Arab men... 

It’s the general rule that such deeply held racist attitudes get coded in the terms Nelson uses: “issues of civility and collegiality.”  Long experience tells us that what collegiality means in most cases is that a reliable colleague is expected not to rock any boats, not to upset the self-satisfied decorum that makes most universities sites of overwhelming conformity rather than consequential critique. And nothing rocks the boat more than the naming of the racism that all too often underlies the truisms and the unquestioned givens of academic life. 

Surely, however, the occasional resort to an expletive, the expression of a righteous anger, is less extreme than the casual and offhand legitimation of injustice that passes for reasonable speech, the often unthinking but never incidental callousness that legitimates the business-as-usual of domination and structural violence. Listen for a moment to Nelson and ask yourself whether he should not, in fact, have to answer to Salaita’s tweet: 

I do not support the “right of return,” in part because the adults who lived in Arab-owned homes [sic] in what became the state of Israel are now almost all dead….The right to return to some place you have never been seems rather chimerical, mainly a form of political combat by other means, designed to undermine or eliminate the religious character of the Jewish state.

In his tone, Nelson sounds entirely reasonable. However, once you grasp what he is saying, the reasonableness is precisely the obscenity. Forget the profound but telling contradiction that Nelson would deny to Palestinians expelled from Israel, in 1948 and since, a right that Israel automatically grants to all Jews, no matter that their forebears may never have set foot in Palestine. The invented “right of return” is as essential a demographic condition for the creation and maintenance of “a Jewish state,” as is the denial of the universally recognized right of all refugees to return to their homes. What is civilly slipped in here is the astonishing callousness of believing that in order to abolish an internationally recognized right that is also a matter of simple justice, it is enough to declare that the bearers of that right “are now almost all dead.” Their children, of course, are simply dismissed. The wishful thinking leaks creepily through the phrasing. Here liberal Zionism politely, euphemistically, declares its murderous intent and its deep incompatibility with any meaningful conception of civility or justice. Imagine the furor that would be created were Salaita or I to tweet that the descendants of Holocaust victims should no longer have the right to the return of artworks stolen from them by the Nazis, because the owners “are now almost all dead.”

But because this is a defense of Zionism and the ethnocratic state of Israel that it spawned, in all its violence and its incremental genocide, Nelson seems to be able to get away with this truly ghoulish dismissal of the victims, this callous spitting on their undeserved fates. It is a perfect instance of the ways in which academic decorum, civility and collegiality furnish cover for the vicious and hypocritical defense of power and domination. 

And Nelson has proven himself of late Zionism’s most servile and clownish lackey. Like a barroom bore always going on about his past glories that no one else seems to recall, or like some former department chair, who has little left to say but invokes at every meeting his lost authority, Nelson declares at every possible opportunity that he is past president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He really does believe that this somehow authorizes his noxious personal opinions. Like any lickspittle of the establishment, he seems unable to step forth without slipping into the outsize garb of some powerful institution, out of whose protective folds spews his bullying and injurious mantras.

The AAUP has forthrightly repudiated Nelson’s scarcely-veiled pretense to still speak for the Association in improperly legitimating Salaita’s dismissal on the basis of an accusation of incivility and uncollegiality that has never been evidenced. Such are, it seems, the hypothetical grounds on which—presumably in the face of powerful pressure from well-funded Zionist lobby groups—Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign so belatedly and disreputably dismissed a colleague. 

Steven Salaita must be reinstated to his position as Associate Professor of Native American Studies at UIUC. That is the least that the Chancellor can do to regain the respect that her ugly and censorious decision has lost her university in the view of serious scholars.

But it remains to us to consider the implications of Nelson’s claim that imputed incivility and uncollegiality are genuine grounds for the dismissal of a scholar. His shameful defense of Salaita’s firing reveals itself as an opportunistic and interested repudiation of everything that academic freedom actually stands for: the right of the scholar to speak truth to power, the recognition of the urgency of speaking against the grain of domination that is a fundamental condition of free inquiry, the acknowledgement that there can be no genuine pursuit of knowledge without passion and no authentic debate without causing discomfort to ourselves and to others. A conception of academic freedom that falls short of those fundamentals, one which is hedged around with the conformism and temporizing that masquerade as civility, is not worth defending. 

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