Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Yet Another New York Times/Tom Friedman Edition
Noted for February 7, 2013

Katha Pollitt Says--Rightly--for Politicians to Leave Brooklyn College Alone: Boundaries of Academic Freedom Weblogging

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Katha Pollitt:

New York Dems Shouldn't Make Political Hay of Brooklyn College's Panel on BDS: I don’t know what I think about the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel. On the one hand, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Gaza are clearly wrong. On the other hand, I don’t like to see citizens, who have little power, held to account for the doings of their governments, all of which are fairly reprehensible, including our own. Does a campaign to ban Israeli-made hummus from the Park Slope Food Coop really forward any cause except self-righteousness? I was even more turned off by incidents like the picketing of the Jerusalem Quartet in Toronto and London and the collapse of a projected anthology of writing by Middle Eastern women because the publisher, University of Texas Press, refused to accede to demands by some contributors that the two Israeli invitees be excluded.

Still, whatever one thinks of BDS, there is surely nothing wrong with Brooklyn College’s political science department hosting a panel about it consisting of two BDS supporters, philosopher Judith Butler and BDS organizer Omar Barghouti.

I, by contrast, think there is something wrong with Brooklyn College's political science department hosting this panel. I think so for two reasons. My first reason is the topic: "Judith Butler & Omar Barghouti - BDS Movement against Israel :: Thursday, February 7, 2013 - 6:30pm". Note: it is not a panel "for Palestine" or "for Palestinian rights" or "for justice in the Middle East" or "against the current policies of the Israeli government". it is a panel "against Israel". That seems to me to be anti-semitic in intent as well as effect.

My second reason is the purpose of the BDS movement itself. It is not speech that leads to actions and decisions that then can be assessed and corrected by more and different speech. It is speech that leads to actions and decisions that shut down future speech--one purpose of BDS is to stop Israelis from speaking on American college campuses. Panels that are speech-against-speech need to be held to a much higher standard of fairness and balance than do panels that are simply part of the normal rough-and-tumble give-and-take.

Thus I think the Brooklyn College political science department ought to withdraw it sponsorship.

But I agree unreservedly with the rest of what Katha Pollitt has to say: The decision to sponsor the panel or not is within the circle of the university's academic freedom, and the Brooklyn College political science department should not be threatened or rewarded in any way. Its sole obligation to outsiders on this is to use its best judgment:

Attacked by Alan Dershowitz and many others, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould has stood admirably firm in her defense of academic freedom, but now a wide array of New York politicians are up in arms. I was sorry to see that my own City Council representative Gale Brewer has signed a letter from Lew Fidler, assistant majority leader of the New York City Council, threatening to withhold funds to the College and to CUNY if it went on as scheduled. Really, council members, you would impoverish these already threadbare city institutions because you disapprove of a panel? Haven’t we been here before, with Mayor Giuliani, who threatened to unleash hellfire on the Brooklyn Museum for showing a picture he felt disrespected the Virgin Mary?…

Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism?… The wrong way is for politicians, progressive or not, to set themselves up as micro-managers of campus programming, backed up by threats of financial punishment to an institution that can ill afford the loss. Isn’t that a kind of mirror of BDS itself?