A transcript of the 2019 TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, delivered August 7, 2019.
I begin with a straightforward proposition: academic freedom is inhumane. Its inhumanity isn’t of the physical, legal, or intellectual variety. Even at its best, academic freedom is capable of transforming human beings into instruments of bureaucracy. It is inhumane as an ontological category. It cannot provide the very artifact it promises: freedom. To become practicable, academic freedom requires textual boundaries. Under this sort of regime, freedom is merely academic.
Freedom in a rights-based structure is easy to visualize, which means that it’s tethered to orthodoxy. This doesn’t make a rights-based structure unimportant; it is something to be preserved and strengthened. It merely peters out somewhere short of freedom. Academic freedom can do little to alter the fine-tuned cultures of obedience that govern nearly every campus around the world. I cannot venture a comprehensive theory of freedom or know for certain in what spaces freedom may be possible, but it won’t be in selective institutions possessed of wealthy donors, legislative overseers, defense contracts, and opulent endowments.
If you’ll grant me the patience, I’ll recall a few of my experiences in and beyond academe in an effort to illuminate these points.
A few years ago, after my lawsuit with the University of Illinois had been settled but before I left academe, I visited a US campus to speak about academic freedom. The itinerary included a thought-session with the local AAUP. The AAUP, for those unfamiliar with the acronym, is the American Association of University Professors, a venerable organization that more or less sets the criteria for academic freedom and investigates cases where it appears to have been violated; its influence extends beyond the USA. As an organization, the AAUP opposes academic boycott of Israeli universities but intervened strongly on my side after the Illinois firing.
Rather than a discussion or even an argument about what academic freedom means for Israel’s critics, the gathering of faculty ended up being a kind of inquest. The gentleman who had convened the roundtable read some of my provocative tweets—without mentioning the horrors to which they responded—and then compared them against relevant sections of the AAUP manual. I confess to having been annoyed.
By that point I no longer thought about the tweets. I couldn’t recall my state of mind when I wrote them and had published an entire book defending them. More important, numerous bodies had already declared my case a clear-cut violation of academic freedom: dozens of scholarly associations, various committees at the University of Illinois, labor unions, a federal judge, individual theorists of free speech, the AAUP itself. It didn’t seem useful to relitigate a historical episode contested only by fascists and reactionaries.
Listening to my words interspersed with itemized bylaws was jarring, but it helped clarify an ethic that’s normally implicit: when I make a public comment, I don’t care if it conforms to the etiquette of a speech manual. I’m instead concerned with the needs and aspirations of the colonized, the unempowered, the dispossessed. Conditioning critique on the conventions of bourgeois civil liberties, and in deference to specters of recrimination, abrogates any meaningful notion of political independence. To ignore those conventions, to engage the world based on a set of fugitive values, will necessarily frustrate centers of power in ways that require protection beyond the scope of academic freedom. The damnable comment is precisely what academic freedom attempts to protect, but it is incapable of preventing unsanctioned forms of punishment, regulation of the job market according to docility, or the increasing contingency of labor, which stands today as the greatest threat to academic freedom.
Human beings are too complicated for rulebooks. Problem is, we’re also too unruly for freedom. In institutions trained on reproducing social order, rulebooks will always win that battle.
In order to productively discuss academic freedom, we first need to determine the nature of the product we’re discussing. I don’t want to recite arguments anyone who bothered to attend this lecture almost surely agrees with: academic freedom preserves democracy; academic freedom emboldens research; academic freedom facilitates faculty governance. These by now are truisms.
Academic freedom is no simple matter, though. We have distinct ways of understanding it, often according to class, discipline, race, gender, and ideology. At base, academic freedom entitles us, as both faculty and students, to say or investigate things that might upset others without the fear of retaliation. As with any condition of speech, limits exist. (And as always, complexity begins at the imposition of limits.)
Many people, for example, are unwilling to protect a Nazi’s right to teach undergraduates. Others believe that the principle of speech overrides the harm attending the Nazi’s presence. Using Nazis in a hypothetical scenario used to be considered overkill, but these days, unfortunately, it requires no hyperbole. Let’s grant the argument that the Nazi has to go. We don’t want racism on campus, right?
But what happens when a Jewish student says criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or when a white student considers affirmation of Blackness a form of racial hostility? We’ve been warned again and again that limiting the reactionary speech will inevitably lead to repression of the political left. This is the absolutist view of academic freedom—the belief that protection ought to be evenly applied across the ideological spectrum. It’s a solid view. I have no fundamental problem with it. But I do question the wisdom of allowing a civil liberty to dominate notions of freedom.
In the end, we have to apply value judgments (mediated by lawless forces) to balance speech rights with public safety. In societies like the USA and South Africa, steeped in the afterlives of colonization, this task is remarkably difficult. We know that racism is bad, but global economic systems are invested in its survival. We know that anti-Zionism isn’t racism, that in fact it is the just position. Yet no agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech, in large part because maintaining a community is at odds with corporate dominion. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers.
There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas are serious and which in turn get a hearing. If we conceptualize speech as a market-driven phenomenon, then we necessarily relinquish concern for the vulnerable. We’re left with competing narratives in a system designed to favor the needs of capital. It’s a highly lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, which aspiring pundits and prospective academics are happy to exploit. Corporate and state-run media don’t exist to ratify disinterest, but to reproduce status quos.
The political left is already restricted, on and beyond campus. The same notions of respectability or common sense that guide discussion of academic freedom also limit the imagination to mechanical defense of abstractions. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.
I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society, at least in North America and much of Europe (and, for that matter, the Arab World). Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military—anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing. More than anything, denouncing Israeli aggression has a long record of provoking recrimination. Anti-Zionism has always existed in dialogue with revolutionary politics around the globe, including the long struggle against Apartheid.
Academic freedom doesn’t prevent sexual violence. It doesn’t disrupt racial capitalism. It doesn’t hinder obscene inequality. Academic freedom isn’t a capable deterrent to genocide.
The devotee of academic freedom will say that it’s not meant to do any of those things. This is correct. Academic freedom has humbler ambitions. The fact that academic freedom has a specific mandate doesn’t detract from its importance. I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. I’m suggesting that it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.
I’ve been tracking Anglophone academic job listings for five years, monitoring them for twenty, and have yet to see the word “Palestine” in a single advertisement. There’s also precious little about Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa. Israel, on the other hand, is the subject of endowed professorships across the globe. Why does this comparatively miniscule country, in both size and population, enjoy such prominence on campus?
The obvious answer is that the state’s supporters spend money on professorships. This explanation isn’t comprehensive, though. Lots of factors exist: the importance of Israel to US culture and identity; Israel’s prominent role in Western imperialism; the pro-Israel leanings of many professors and administrators; the state’s seamless reproduction of orthodoxy; the notion that Israel is exceptional and thus worthy of special analysis; the methodical effort to scrub Palestinians from the globe.
The last point—the decades-long attempt to scrub Palestinians—is critical. Zionists have made it so that even identifying as Palestinian is contentious. Articulating nationalist politics, a central feature of Palestinian identity, is likely to inspire remonstration. It’s an awful predicament. In spaces devoted to learning, inquiry into our very existence is verboten. We cannot claim a history. We cannot share our culture. We cannot speak without oversight.
My life in academe, as both a student and teacher, was defined by the tyranny of balance, the idea that no criticism of Israel can stand on its own, and that my obligation was to internalize the oppressor’s feelings rather than interrogate my own. As I grew and met more people, I learned that my experiences were exhaustingly common.
In 2018, Palestine Legal, an organization that assists people on campus targeted for punishment by Zionists, responded to 289 incidents of suppression of U.S.-based Palestine advocacy. In 2017, the number was 318. Since 2014, Palestine Legal has responded to a total of 1,247 incidents of suppression. The number of actual incidents is no doubt much higher.
Upon becoming president, Donald Trump appointed Kenneth Marcus as head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Marcus is a Likudnik who founded the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights, which has dragged dozens of pro-Palestine activists into court—including myself. To this day, not a single university president has condemned the University of Illinois’s 2014 annihilation of academic freedom or its destruction of the program in American Indian Studies; eight months earlier, hundreds found time to bemoan a scholarly association’s boycott resolution.
All the institutions of state maintain ideological and material devotion to Israel: administrative offices, law enforcement agencies, legislative bodies. The argument that Zionists repeat about campus being awash in anti-Israel (and thus anti-Semitic) sentiment is a fantasy—or, more precisely, a rhetorical gimmick to convey a more critical point, that challenging their supremacy is a form of prejudice.
Humor my self-indulgence for a moment. I want to consider what that word, “freedom,” means in economies structured to reward obedience. No thinking person buys the myth of merit as an explanation for wealth or upward mobility. Academe and corporate media are filled with mediocrities who achieved stardom by flattering the ruling class.
Already, then, freedom is tenuous because livelihood is contingent on respectability, itself contingent on whatever version of exceptionalism pleases a local elite. Cultures of online exchange promise a kind of freedom, but more than anything they illuminate the preponderance of coercion, a much greater social force. Nobody who covets white-collar stability will make a comment on social media without considering specters of recrimination, if only in a hypothetical future. Every hiring committee you’ll ever encounter staffs Twitter’s electronic panopticon.
Once a narrative about an academic’s offensive social media profile takes hold, it becomes a permanent demerit. Because I was marked in a particular way, deliberately and publicly, I can’t visit Palestine, my mother’s ancestral land, as the Zionist occupiers control all ports of entry. I can’t find a single university president who will affirm my right to extramural speech. I can’t get an office job with any campus or corporation that has access to Google. I’ve been sued two different times by the same people who wrecked my academic career. Civil liberties can offer recourse against governmental repression, but they’re helpless against the capitalist impulse to eliminate disruption of commerce.
Tell me, then. What opportunity? What autonomy? What freedom?
I’m not sure, anyway, that it’s wise or accurate to limit academic freedom to a narrow civic imperative. Academic freedom exists in countless relations of power, which render it dynamic and inconsistent.
The primary muscle behind academic freedom, in the USA, at least, are courts and labor unions. The AAUP, for example, functions as a union on various campuses, including the American University of Beirut, where I worked for two years. Unions have a mandate to do more than observe and document violations of academic freedom. They attempt to strengthen faculty governance, which is obliged to serve the interests of underrepresented students and instructors, along with fighting the growing tide of precarity. (I don’t think faculty governance, even where it still enjoys some autonomy, adequately does these things, but we’re talking about hypothetical transactions related to academic freedom.) It’s not at all clear, then, that concern with justice is beyond the purview of academic freedom.
As to the courts, they can sometimes provide recourse, but we should consider the timing of litigation and the nature of the restitution it offers. Upper administrators certainly consider these things. When a professor generates controversy, university leaders will undertake a cost-benefit analyses wherein they measure the damage from a broken contract or violation of academic freedom against the losses they might incur from unhappy donors and politicians. In my case with Illinois, administrators and politicians represented the interests of wealthy investors.
I sued and the courts, as the university’s leadership knew would happen (because they said so in private emails), took my side. Academic freedom provided recourse. Case closed, right? Not quite.
No amount of money, no legal recognition that I was wronged, will replace the loss of my academic career, to which I devoted the majority of my life. There’s no such thing as becoming whole when the same state that destroyed my livelihood tries to return it in piecemeal increments. Academic freedom can’t make any university hire me, no matter how strong my CV. It can’t alleviate the fear administrators have of upsetting the Israel lobby. It can’t alter the ideological conditions that make campus so hostile to Palestinians. Everybody involved in the imbroglio at Illinois got to pick up the pieces of their vocation and move on to different pastures. I didn’t. The fallout for me was permanent. They can put the ugly situation behind them. It’s always right in front of me. I think about these things when I’m inspecting my school bus in the dark of a twenty-degree morning.
I’ve been discussing the variability of academic freedom as both a discourse and a practice—basically, the ways it can be instrumentalized in service of various ideological projects. One example involves the University of Cape Town. When your university Senate passed a resolution ending collaboration with Israeli universities in March 2019, it set off a flurry of disapproving and often reproachful commentary from Zionist scholars. Most of them, not wanting to betray partisan motivations, disapproved of the resolution by citing academic freedom.
Leaving aside the demonstrably false notion that boycott and civil rights are incompatible—they have historically gone hand in hand—the partisans pretending to be objective relied on troublesome assumptions about the range and purpose of academic freedom.
First of all, the decision was made according to a democratic governing process, so it represented a classic example of academic freedom in action. What, then, are critics of the resolution actually doing? What do they truly want, beyond the piety and the platitudes? They’re asking upper administrators or outside forces to intervene in faculty governance based on political displeasure, the very thing academic freedom is supposed to prevent.
Moreover, what vision of academic freedom are the critics promoting? Working outside the boundaries of state power in order to defend the disenfranchised and dispossessed—after having exhausted the possibility of change through conventional channels—embodies the sort of public engagement university PR departments relentlessly market. Yet the detractors’ conception of academic freedom, one deployed to dissuade or shut down extracurricular activism, tacitly (and sometimes openly) encourages sites of authority to regulate ideas, to mediate which of them become normative, and to subdue activism with potential to disrupt extant structures of power. Those who oppose BDS don’t simply abjure radical discourses; they deploy an iteration of academic freedom that serves managerial interests.
Academic freedom is always conditional on a corresponding politics, always conditioned by the issues with which it corresponds. We can’t treat it as timeless or discrete. Rights pretend to be neutral entitlements disbursed according to need. In fact, they are commodities managed by bureaucrats paid handsomely to indulge the ruling class under the guise of collective values.
Mainstream debates about BDS disappear the people at the heart of the issue. Almost exclusively, conversations about academic boycott describe the ways it might harm Israelis (none of which has come to fruition). But what about Palestinian students and scholars? (This question always comes out of nowhere because Palestinians aren’t part of the calculus.) The moment we decide that they’re worthy of academic freedom—that is, to the promise of movement and development and interchange, to an existence that isn’t criminalized, to lives of inquiry unfettered by suppression—boycotting Israeli universities becomes the only ethical response.
It shouldn’t be surprising that some advocates of Palestinian liberation express skepticism about the prospects of academic freedom in the corporate university. Recrimination against anti-Zionists on campus is a bona fide phenomenon. It’s been happening for decades. Professors are fired or arrested; some have been deported. The lucky ones merely suffer alienation, ignominy, and abuse. Students are profiled as terrorists on websites intended to harm their career prospects. Management shuts down clubs devoted to Palestine. Outside of leftist and civil libertarian spaces, this stuff is mostly ignored. What should be a continual scandal generates attention only when there’s opportunity to situate Palestine as a strange, aggressive geography. Dozens of pundits have made lucrative careers of defending free speech as if it’s a neutral phenomenon, an approach that inevitably benefits the political right because neutrality in essence is the logic of power. Those pundits never invoke Palestinians as victims of the repression they deplore.
I hope that my focus on Palestine isn’t out of place in Cape Town. I’m recalling the deep and lasting ties between the anti-Apartheid struggle and Palestinian nationalism and want to give a nod to the people of this nation who have been unflinching supporters of Palestine’s liberation. South Africa has always been a source of strength in our imagination, a place where solidarity goes beyond narrative to achieve an existential kinship that comes to us in tableaus of emotion. The large statue of a triumphant Mandela in Ramallah is a gift of steadfastness—of what we call sumoud—to a people still suffering a regime of racial segregation.
The examples of Palestine in relation to academic freedom aren’t isolated to a particular geography. We need only consider the imperatives of any localized ruling class to see the situation repeated across the globe. All states harbor communities whose desire to survive threatens the supremacy of individuals and institutions invested in their dispossession.
In a world of ascendant fascism, we can’t simply accept academic freedom as a given, nor is it prudent to imagine academic freedom as a constant amid curricular and pedagogical changes. Threats to academic freedom coincide with ominous prospects for biological and ecological survival. Academic freedom can’t exist without the very forces it opposes. It is at once sovereign and derivative. Raise a revolutionary politics, one that stresses the violence of colonization and capitalism, and you’ll quickly encounter the limits of civil liberties. The system crushes substantive dissent with or without them, even if it has to spend a bit of money or face a few days of acrimony on Twitter.
It’s important, then, to avoid treating academic freedom as sacrosanct and view it instead as a participant in material politics. Academic freedom cannot function without tenure, worker solidarity, and an adequate job market, which are increasingly in decline. “Can academic freedom be saved?” is perhaps a less pertinent question than “Is there any longer a marketplace for academic freedom?” The corporate university is disarming academic freedom by diminishing the circumstances in which it can be effective.
Let’s not shy away from the complicity of the tenured professoriate in the sorry state of affairs that now affect the global academy. Tenured positions are down. Government funding has decreased. The managerial class is a bloated monstrosity. Some instructors work multiple jobs without adequate benefits. Sexual violence is common. Racism appears poised for another golden age. The humanities are barely surviving. Student debt is outrageous. And those with job security did little to prevent any of it.
This is the kind of comment that gets me into trouble. “What evidence is there for the claim?” tenured faculty will want to know. Well, my evidence is simple: everything on the list occurred while you were on the clock. Their occurrence creates a paradox for anybody who would disavow responsibility. You either claim helplessness, in which case academic freedom is unnecessary, or you acknowledge that academic freedom is a limited commodity available to those who enjoy some level of institutional power.
I was a tenured faculty member for twelve years and count myself among the complicit. I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades—because I didn’t properly see them as comrades, something my position informally demanded. And trying to produce meaningful criticism put me in serious conflict with my employers. We all know, in personal moments of brutal honesty, that radical devotion to lesser classes is almost always just professional branding, because we’re scared of the punishment that awaits if we offend the wrong people, those who occupy floors above the ivy. Academic freedom doesn’t take away the fear because we know that management can always find ways around it.
The problem ultimately isn’t individual, though. Professional associations talked a lot about this crisis or that emergency, but did little to organize their members. Departments and colleges consented to divide and conquer strategies rather than uniting across disciplinary boundaries. Prestige triumphed over solidarity. Now the damage may be irreversible.
I can be accused of speaking from a sense of pessimism cultivated by ostracization. I accept that criticism. I’d respond by pointing out that useful critique often comes from people who suffer the worst tendencies of a culture or profession. I can’t feign objectivity or claim to speak for any collective. Academe is a large profession, with thousands of disciplines and subcultures. Its inhabitants have vastly different experiences and impressions.
But this much I know: my ouster from academe brought into focus problems I scarcely noticed when I was still on the inside. College students often talk of unlearning the dogmas they internalized from their homes, secondary schools, and places of worship. I’m constantly unlearning the strictures of being learned, exorcising the finely-tuned customs of obedience into which I and my peers were so carefully socialized. Now I instantly recognize when putatively radical scholars reproduce the imperatives of power through a compulsion to find nuance where old-fashioned outrage is appropriate.
I’ve talked longer already than I’m normally comfortable doing. I don’t want to stretch the limits of your patience, so let me try to synthesize a central point to all this philosophizing, reflection, storytelling, whatever you want to call it.
If you are interested in a revolutionary politics, by which I mean if you harbor a desire to subvert, or at least alter, the structures that govern inequality, then academic freedom will neither offer guidance nor protect you from recrimination. This isn’t to say that academic freedom is unimportant. It is critical to a functional university. However, academic freedom shouldn’t be an end in itself. It is an instrument, one among many, to help us realize a world unlimited by stagnant doctrines of pragmatism.
Rehearsing the commonplaces of academic freedom isn’t an adequate substitute for the uncomfortable inquiry it’s meant to protect. Let us then imagine what a truly free campus in a free society would look like. Let us not wait for institutions to authorize our imagination. Let us create unsanctioned solidarities. Let us redefine disrepute. Let us harbor intellectual fugitives.
Let us, above all, embrace the painful but liberating recognition that optimizing our humanity depends upon the obsolescence of civil rights, for they are necessary only in societies that profit from repression.
My son just finished first grade. The only time I know freedom is in his company. He hasn’t yet discovered the enervating logic of civility. We’ve spent this summer, up in the northern hemisphere, searching the woods for railroad tracks, watching un-educational cartoons, and creating a ruckus at our community pool. It was hard as hell to pry myself away from this routine even though I’m happy to have visited. My experience in this beautiful city has been cathartic.
He started playing baseball in April. I want to say he took to the game like a natural, but the sport doesn’t agree with his body. He’s a gangly kid, unusually tall—been in the 99th height percentile since birth. His attitude was lukewarm, too. He liked batting—what child doesn’t like carrying a big stick?—but in the field mostly devoted himself to skipping in circles and kicking up dust.
At the end of my afternoon shift, I’d park my bus and rush across the lot to my car, speeding away in order to make practice on time, two, sometimes three times a week. There I sat on a grassy hillside and watched my boy run and smile and I’d remember the meaning of freedom—not as a term, but a feeling, its most essential incarnation.
Not even striking out repeatedly while his teammates became power hitters quelled the child’s enthusiasm. He’d miss the third pitch, glance bashfully in my direction, and then bound behind the backstop to retrieve his glove. The failure became my burden. During games I stewed in tension as the ball flew past his bat, standing to clap and shout “good job” as he scampered to the dugout, his bat dragging behind him.
With only two games left, I took him to an empty field to practice swinging. The day was humid and neither of us wanted to be outside. For the first time, I could see that striking out was bothering him, and I wasn’t sure what it meant that it had occurred in my company. He began connecting with the ball, dinks and foul tips. It was enough for him. He wanted to visit the mall or watch TV, anything that would get us out of the sun. I pressed him to continue.
“The practice will pay off during the game,” I kept saying, my tone excitable, my body language impatient. “It’ll pay off.” He dutifully continued swinging.
At the game the following day, there was no change in his gait or demeanor as he approached the plate. Three pitches. Three swings. Three misses. I searched his face for signs of disappointment, but he carried his normal expression of wonderment. I suppose I needed to search my own expression to find the sentiment.
About five minutes later, he had sneaked beside me on the bleachers. I turned my head and there he stood. Startled, I asked what was the matter. He beckoned me to lean closer. When my ear was an inch from his mouth, he clasped my shoulders. “Papa,” he whispered, “it didn’t pay off.”
He slid onto my lap. I took off his cap and tussled his hair. “You did great,” I reassured him. He returned to his teammates, to the field where he did pirouettes at the edge of the outfield grass, to the plate where he struck out two more times before picking up a paper bag filled with snacks and a bottle of Gatorade.
All seemed normal on the ride home, but I was in turmoil. It was hard for me to believe that my child’s visit to the bleachers wasn’t motivated by a sudden loss of innocence, by a terrible recognition: the rewards that are supposed to come of hard work don’t always materialize. It must have been confusing for him, but it wasn’t a bad lesson, I figured. We all learn it at some point, perhaps with the exception of those born into wealth. It’s no accident that those types are most apt to aggressively defend capitalist myths of upward mobility.
In time, I realized that I had learned something, too: for five years, almost exactly five years to this day, I’ve had to consider whether my sharp criticism of Israel and subsequent recalcitrance—the unwillingness to grovel my way back into academe’s good graces—were worth it. But it’s been almost impossible to understand the stakes because the story is ongoing, its plot out of my control. I wouldn’t change anything, nor do I entertain regret. Still, the decisions I’ve made will feel incomplete, disaggregated, until the situation on which I commented ceases to be catastrophic.
All I know is that I’m determined to keep alive the idea of freedom. If I back down from a dangerously simple vision of Palestinian liberation, one intolerant of anything less than equality, then I will have betrayed the people with whom my destiny is aligned—objects of disrepute in the white-collar economy, unwelcome proof that greed has real-life consequences. I endure the punishment not because I’m a sucker or a martyr—I have no illusions about the ruthlessness of capital and I despise the lionization of public figures—but because I want the vision of freedom ubiquitous among the dispossessed to survive.
I dislike it when activists and intellectuals in the metropole compromise that vision for the sake of access, market share, or respectability. Likewise when they accommodate Zionism in order to sanitize the image of Western politicians. These actions aren’t necessary compromises or reluctant overtures to realism. They’re voluntary acts of conciliation. Worse, that conciliation proceeds without the consent of people the activists and intellectuals purport to represent. No matter how much punishment I suffer, I will never abdicate my commitment to human beings dismissed as surplus, devoid of influence, unloved by power.
That’s how we win. That’s how the downtrodden have always won. Every single time. By defying the logic of recrimination. By depleting its power through unapologetic defiance. That’s why they hate me. Because I’ll face down any punishment they decide to serve. Because I won’t ratify their defamation. Because I’ll never compromise the humanity of the Palestinian people in order to assuage a colonizer. We have to be willing to drive buses, sweep floors, stock groceries, wait tables, to do the kind of labor that frees the mind from exploitation of the body. Whatever keeps the idea alive. That’s our greatest source of power, something basic to survival, something so damn simple. The goal shouldn’t be to build an audience, to humor arbiters of respectability, to craft ideological brands, to make good money. No. It should be to inoculate yourself against the malice of your oppressor.
They took my career. They continue to patrol academe to make sure I never return—that’s why they’re complaining about my presence here at UCT; they’re sending a message: don’t even dream of hiring this guy; don’t even consider it. We’ll create a circus, a ragbag of bad press, the one thing that administrators of all ideological leanings dread. We’ll withhold donations. We’re willing to harm the entire institution in order to preserve our anachronistic politics. I know this because they do the same thing at every campus I’ve ever visited.
Why should they complain about BDS? Are they really worried about academic freedom? Every attempt to hire me, a project that’s supposedly the autonomous domain of faculty, meets with remonstration from the outside. In fact, they intervene before employment is even an idea. And for what? Viewpoints with which they disagree. They have no standing to cite concern for academic freedom, not while they reproduce the textbook behavior of its historical enemies.
They took my health insurance. They keep dragging me into court. They forced me into hourly labor. What do I have left? The one thing they can’t extinguish: a fixation on equality, recorded in steady rhythms with an uncapped pen. In other words: freedom.
Don’t ever voluntarily cede that power. Your recalcitrance will pay off. And then we’ll join the continents in victory. The system of compensation into which we’re acclimated can never match that kind of reward.
Here is the problem with orthodoxy. Here is the moral limit of pragmatism. Institutions wring humanity out of social relations and so the indescribable closeness of filial love, in whispered exchanges of hope and anxiety, becomes a lifeline to meaningful futures. I don’t want to conceptualize justice as an attempt to curtail our worst tendencies, but as a disposition that reproduces the imperatives of filial love in spaces of mercy and compassion.
Recalcitrance is our only source of power against a voracious ruling class. Being recalcitrant—a refusal to passively consume injustice as a matter of economic or psychological expedience—is worth the hatred and suffering it generates across the political spectrum, from the fascists, the bosses, the racists, but also from the self-described paladins of justice with bureaucratic aspirations, those who expect makeshift devotion to immediately pay off.
I want to take up residence with you in a world of impossible ideas.
And the main idea we must nurture isn’t academic freedom; it’s simply freedom, unadorned, unmediated, unmodified.
Originally published on stevesalaita.com