clownish conflation of ascription and achievement constitutes calumny

[There is a short update/response for readers coming from Tablet/Liebovitz at bottom; click here to jump]

It’s been, um, 3+ years since I last posted here but I’m gonna exploit my not yet lapsed login to follow up on Dan’s post on the Salaita/UIUC affair…. It’s not short though so tl;dr: pulling things out of context to wreck reputations is calumny; that has been happening to Steven Salaita; in a world in which we tweet and blog and some of our fearless leaders are spineless, we need to worry about bad faith academic vigilantism.

The reasons this post has to be long are, well, my point is that it’s easy to pull things from context especially when the context is twitter/bloggorrhea; I’m writing about something controversial and calling someone out (though in response to his own very public and dishonest defense of someone else unfairly being denied his frigging livelihood); and I’m gonna be damn sure to provide context (and links). I may have tenure and be governed by people other than Phyllis Wise and Chris Kennedy, but I don’t need that s**t.

If you want to get to my main value-add net of what’s out there, jump to my parlor; if you you’d like some entertaining but irrelevant linkbait about diarrheaous clowns click here; for the whole post:

The thing I want to add to what Dan said re: The Salaita Affair (which I’ve followed very closely for reasons that those who know me will understand) is to further contest the way some presume, on the basis of this or that tweet pulled from context by someone who strongly opposes Salaita’s BDS activism, that they can know Steven Salaita’s soul (and how he’d teach, which is crazier still). I was motivated to write this because I ran across this piece in Tablet by Liel Liebovitz who, given his field has to know full well the norms of twitter (he also got his PhD from my employer, though at least not from my dept; sigh). I found the piece just so fundamentally dishonest that I could not leave it uncommented. Sadder still (at least for me), I ran across it because I saw it tweeted approvingly by a sociologist whose acumen I’d normally respect. That acumen notwithstanding, I am quite sure that the piece is so far beyond awful as to be calumnious.

Liebovitz’s piece is entitled “Tweets Cost a Professor His Tenure, and That’s a Good Thing.” It makes its hullabaloo about a few, but especially one, of the Salaita-Tweets that were screen-grabbed, pulled from context by Legal Insurrection, forwarded to Cary Nelson so he could reveal himself to be a twitter-incompetent hypocrite, and used to get Salaita fired/dehired. The main tweet analyzed is this: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” There is a claim by Liebovitz to subject that tweet to

a close reading—an exercise that passes for rigid and original thinking in most American universities these days.

And lo and behold, when he gives it that “close read” he is able to divine that

the author [Salaita] approaches anti-Semitism with the one-two punch of unreality: It doesn’t exist—hence the quotation marks—and if it does exist then it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I don’t know what kind of “close reading” Liebovitz learned at CU, but in my department we’d mean a close reading in its context because, um, twitter has context (h/t Natalie Zemon Davis, nice letter!). When you do that, it’s shockingly easy to see that Salaita is in fact attacking the claim that any opposition to Zionism is per se equivalent to anti-semitism—or, more specifically, he is attacking claims that a principled stand against state violence meted out by Israel amounts to anti-semitism (e.g. 1, 2, 3). Salaita’s is a stance akin to Billy Bragg’s “if you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it” (2:38) in “Waiting for the great leap forward” (saw Bragg play Bologna last month; awesome, he’s still got it!; original also includes the portentious line “Will politics get me the sack?”). Salaita is, perhaps too cleverly and provocatively for his own sake in retrospect, advocating a pretty clear substantive position (which he outlines in the same damn twitter conversation for anyone who bothers to look: he means to say that he deplores “colonization, land theft, and child murder” by the Israeli state and says that even if you’re going to call that “anti-semitism” he’s still going to deplore them).

Others have unpacked this stuff in far more detail already in ways that I, obviously, find convincing. To summarize: you can litigate (I suppose) whether Salaita’s right in where he assigns blame for those things (people certainly do, in ways both “civil” and un). But you cannot honestly dispute Salaita’s meaning relative both to the broader context of his public engagement and, as importantly, to the particular context in which he tweeted. There is just no fair way to read him as intending to say anything other than (1) anti-semitism exists; (2) it is far from honorable; but (3) you cheapen the term when you toss it at people who do not in fact hate jews but who do stridently oppose, and do not believe justifiable, the violence of the Israeli state. Some certainly disagree with him on the last point and are considered to be well within the bounds of polite discourse. Many agree with him though, more every day, and are considered to be equally within those bounds. And it raises an obvious question: If Salaita’s detractors, many who hate him for his BDS activism, feel the need to lie about what he plainly and demonstrably meant to justify his firing…, maybe he shouldn’t be fired?


Welcome to my parlor…

The point I’ve not yet seen fully unpacked goes to some very flawed analogical reasoning I’ve seen tossed around not just by Liebovitz but also by others about that particular tweet. Liebovitz in particular suggests that anyone

wondering whether Salaita ought to have a teaching job should play the parlor game of reading his tweets and replacing references to Jews and Israelis with blacks, gays, or women. Should an American institution of higher learning employ someone who tweeted, say, that black Americans were “transforming ‘racism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1964”?

Okay, I’ll play. I’ll also remind that UIUC continues to list Robert Weissberg on its website as “emeritus.” But I’m going to disallow disingenuous category errors in my parlor. So I’m not going to let Liebovitz slip black Americans in where Salaita wrote Zionists. Because if I did that, I’d be allowing exactly what Salaita was criticizing and we’d risk the singularity (this is scatterplot, so this is also where we say that I’d outlaw conflation between the ascribed and the achieved…). To establish that Liebovitz in fact commits a category error I’d point out that some Jews, Jewish Israelis even, are some of the strongest anti-Zionists around. We can therefore be quite sure that “Jews” and “Israelis” and “Zionists” are not coextensive sets of humans, the protestations of the particular folks Salaita is attacking aside. So I’m going to insist we be honest and substitute in for Zionists not all black Americans but instead some reference to whichever achieved (i.e. chosen) status I am intending to attack for disingenuously throwing around the term I’ve put into scare quotes.

There’s no perfect analogy (it’s a parlor game, after all). The point, though, is that Liebovitz is pretty obviously building his conclusion into his assumptions in a way that, if you read fast, seems intuitive yet is in fact anything but. I can get a lot closer than Liebovitz did to the logic of Salaita’s tweet, though, if I remember my ascribeds and my achieveds. I might tweet, for instance, “Fox News: transforming ‘racism’ from something horrible into something honorable”; or perhaps “The Tea Party: transforming ‘racism’ from something horrible into something honorable.” And then for context in subsequent tweets I’d link to this; or to this; or to keep friends from clawing their eyeballs out, to this (for those of you who don’t click through, the first two are instances where American conservatives say that the real racists are people who talk about race because it’s never about race of course; the last is Jon Stewart’s brilliant Race/off bit; jump to 5:49 for someone on Fox saying, “You know who talks about race? Racists”).

I probably would be attacked by confused people, perhaps even willfully/strategically misread by people who might say “wait, that jdw guy probably likes his Fox News and the scare quotes around ‘racist’ must be because he’s so impressed that Fox is willing to stand up to the ‘libtards’ and their ‘race cards’ blah blah” and maybe they’d even try to mobilize the liberal professoriate to fire me. But they’d be wrong. The real fight I’d be getting at with my tweet, however clumsily, would be the one between people who think American racism is about the legacy and maintenance of white supremacy, and people trying instead to mobilize the discursive power of the term “racism” towards their preferred Colbertian/“colorblind” position (I don’t see race…, people tell me I’m white and I believe them because I really can’t dance). In short, we’d be fighting about who should get to apply a word with enormous discursive power to whom. That is what comes clear when you play “parlor analogy” but don’t bend the rules of fair argument. You just underscore yet again that the term racist, like the term anti-semitic, has (for good reasons) a lot of discursive power (shocking news!). People don’t want to give up that power for obvious reasons and so try to control and wield it. It’s a f*****g term though. It gets its meaning partly through context (and scare quotes, for crying out loud, are context).

In my view, the term “racist” is mostly pretty aptly applied in the US (hell, it’s underapplied; Ferguson and the Today Show anyone?), and the Fox News fauxcolorblind-talking-about-race-is-racism view is absurd. Still, the latter is certainly made plenty. And to be clear, I don’t think it is necessarily/logically false in the analytic philosophy all-possible-worlds sense. It is, rather, false-in-the-world (in the Jamesian/pragmatist sense of making it harder to “[adapt] our [lives] to the reality’s whole setting”). Salaita is making a logically parallel (not equivalent) claim, which is that “anti-Semite” is often and terribly misused to silence critics. You can disagree. But Salaita’s argument is just not per se anti-Semitic if by “anti-Semitic” you mean in and of itself expressive of “Hostility to or prejudice against Jews” (i.e. you let the OED arbitrate, for now, that discursively powerful term). Context, moreover, absolves him of the charge that such was his contingent meaning. So it sure as hell shouldn’t get him fired, at least unless we want more generally to give firing power to liars who might also like to fire some 10% of Israeli academics (also too, f*** any academic who claims Salaita was never hired in the first place bc Trustees; academics really should know better; everybody else join the AAUP if you haven’t already and can afford to; I just did).



Update for those of you coming from Tablet/Liebovitz:

(1) Yes, the post has a crappy title, and that’s relevant because?

(2) Liebovitz’s suggestion that the theory/categories I’m using (ascribed/achieved) might be au courant is kinda hilarious, since they are due to Linton (1936) and were pulled into sociology by Parsons (1940). Those terms are so standard in freshman sociology that I used Wikipedia as my link when I invoked them.

(3) Freshman academicese aside, the point I made is that:

  • Most (myself included) do not think anti-Zionism is per se anti-Semitism; you need many many more steps in that argument, and I think it fails badly.
  • The parts of Liebovitz’s argument I attacked require you, however, to agree that anti-Zionism is automatically anti-Semitism in any and all cases.
  • His use of a seemingly intuitive analogy to dupe readers into “acknowledging” that erroneous conflation lapses into dishonesty.
  • Dishonesty is bad, whatever the substantive disagreement (and obviously we do disagree on much of the substance as well; but I didn’t hide that, did I?).

(4) If you want evidence for said dishonesty, jump to my parlor.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] hacks, we should not read the tweet in isolation but in the context of his other writings. Doing so makes it abundantly clear that while Salaita is a strong (and at times uncivil and even crackpottish) critic of Israel on his […]


  2. […] (For a particularly fine example of tongue twisting and tortured logic, see the unimprovably named essay “Clownish conflation of ascription and achievement constitutes calumny,” a missive whose very […]


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