American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy

Here’s the best short commentary I’ve recently seen on our complicity in Saudi tyranny, from the letters section of today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

What are American “interests” in this region, who determined them, and why have they not been shared with the American people?

We get energy from the Saudis and also used to buy significant amounts of oil from Iran. But we diversified our oil purchasing after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and cut off all Iranian shipments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the current glut of oil on the market, we have never been in a stronger position to press the Saudis for democratic reform. But we don’t.

The only plausible answer is that they continue to buy enormous quantities of American weapons and get support from that lobby. They also continue to invest tens of billions of their petrodollars in Western banks. So despite all our talk about human rights and democracy, it appears that our “interests” are being dictated by the arms industry and Wall Street, both of which have a lock on the White House and Congress.

We the people, who do have an interest in human rights, are left to write letters to the editor and hope that our so-called representatives will hear our voices above the money machine in Washington. Something is very, very wrong with this picture.

VICTOR GOODE

Long Island City, Queens

The writer is a professor at the CUNY School of Law.

Every element of that is right, but there’s one thing he doesn’t mention: no boycott of or blacklist against the Saudi regime can work unless Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, decide to join in and boycott the hajj and umra pilgrimages to Mecca (and Medina).

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Pakistan’s Occupied Territories: The Country Itself

I thought I’d interrupt the “All Israel/Palestine, all the time” posts with a classic from the “Pakistan embarrasses itself yet again in front of the whole world” genre. From a headline as accurate as it is designed to provoke laughter: “Pakistan Warns Aid Groups to Follow Unspecified Rules.”

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After the police shut down the offices of a major Western aid group, Pakistan’s interior minister warned Friday that other foreign organizations operating in Pakistan faced greater scrutiny and the possibility of expulsion if they failed to adhere to unspecified rules and laws.

“We do not want to impose a ban on any N.G.O., but they will have to respect the code of conduct,” said the minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

A day earlier, Pakistani officials abruptly sealed the Islamabad offices of the Save the Children, which has operated in Pakistan for 35 years, for what were described as “anti-Pakistan” activities. The group was given 15 days to wind down its operations.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Khan said Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had reported “irregularities” among other aid groups working in Pakistan, although he did not name them or the laws they had broken.

If you read the rest of the article, the “unspecified rules” become clear, and end up reducing to one rule: using one’s brain, for purposes of one’s own, without government permission.

Same story from Karachi’s Dawn. An even better story with a particularly revealing headline: “Pakistan Will Not Allow NGOs Working Against the National Interest.” The video embedded in the preceding article (in Urdu), features a press conference with the Federal Interior Minister, and makes plain how the Government of Pakistan conceives of “the national interest”: if you’re an NGO, it dictates where you’re allowed to work as a condition of your being allowed to operate at all, and if it finds you working in a different party of the country, you’ve violated the “national interest” regardless of what you’re doing or why you’re there, simply because the government panics at the very idea that NGOs might have freedom to act independently of the “agenda” of the government.

Time to haul out the red herrings:

The interior minister named the United States, Israel and India as countries supporting the illegal activities of NGOs in Pakistan.

Putting aside the total implausibility of the claim, the proper question should be: so what? We haven’t been told what the NGOs have been doing that’s so harmful to Pakistan in the first place. So what if the U.S, Israel, and India are supporting those activities? If they’re such enemies of Pakistan, you’d expect them to be doing something more harmful than generating the civil society that the government itself has failed to provide or facilitate. If this is how Pakistan’s enemies treat Pakistan, maybe the time has come to turn the country over to them. It might be an improvement.

Doesn’t this story just prove that all of Pakistan is a set of “occupied territories”? Despite my objections to the Israeli occupation, it bothers me that Association for Asian American Studies wants to boycott Israel but not Pakistan. Maybe the argument is that a wholesale boycott of Pakistan would be unproductive. It probably would be. But if a wholesale boycott is inappropriate for Pakistan, why is it appropriate for Israel? If a partial boycott of Israel is justifiable, why not select a package of targets to boycott in Pakistan?

Meanwhile, the provision of safe water is Pakistan’s newest challenge.  Recall, however, that water flows downhill. Let’s hope it’s legal to follow the stream where it leads.

Thinking about BDS (1): Infantilization, ‘Safe Spaces’, and Threats to Discourse

An angry discussion has broken out about the self-infantilizing character of American university life (and beyond). The basic argument is that contemporary American universities have, in the name of an infantilizing form of pseudo-therapeutic psychobabble, come to stigmatize the very idea of discourse or debate that hurts anyone’s feelings. The criticism comes mostly from the political-academic right (in some sense, however vague) and targets the political-academic left (in the same vague sense). Here’s a piece on the subject in Intercollegiate Review. Here’s an overview from Inside Higher Ed from last year, and a much-discussed one from The New York Times this past March. Here’s a critical commentary from Salon inspired by the Times article. Here’s a more aggressive take on the same from Reason magazine. Here’s the take at the Breitbart site. Here’s the most recent take from BHL.

I basically agree with “the right” on this one, at least in a qualified sort of way. I agree that discourse at American universities is, across the board, irrationally constrained by pseudo-therapeutic rather than truth- or justice-guided norms. We care far too much about how people will feel than how they think, or how they should be thinking. We also care too much about how people will feel than we do about how good our arguments are, how much evidence supports them, or for that matter how rhetorically persuasive they would be to a person of psychologically normal sensibilities.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should be insensitive to people’s feelings or special sensitivities, or to go out of our way to offend them. There’s a balance to be struck between candor and tact. But the balance cannot involve the outright sacrifice of alethic to therapeutic concerns: “sensitivity” can’t dictate that nothing be said out loud that might be construed as insensitive or “triggering” for some person or audience.

I reached the absolute limits of my patience with the “sensitivity” phenomenon when I was obliged last year (along with the rest of the faculty and staff at my institution) to take “sensitivity training” designed to ensure compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, as follows:

As a Catholic/Franciscan institution of higher education, Felician College unconditionally rejects all forms of discrimination and acknowledges our obligation to safeguard and enhance the dignity of every member of our College community. As part of our commitment  to create and to maintain an environment free of discrimination, intimidation, humiliation and harassment of any kind, and in compliance with both federal and state recommendations, all members of the Felician College faculty and staff are required to complete training on identifying and preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. …

It is a legal requirement that we provide harassment training annually.  Since it is very difficult to get everyone together for a lecture format, we have contracted with  Workplace Answers to provide online training for Felician College.  The basic module for faculty/staff should take no more than 40 minutes, the supervisory module (if required) about 20 minutes.  The FSI Corporate Compliance module is self-paced.

Feel free , incidentally, to take a look at the website of Workplace Answers to try to figure out what they’re all about. At best I think you’ll learn that online harassment training is a big and lucrative business involving the marketing of a lot of vacuous cliches.

It sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? It isn’t. If you actually endure the training, you’ll discover that the entire “compliance module” is a systematic assault on the norms of inquiry, discourse, and academic life. Here’s an actual example taken verbatim from the module: it is (we are told) unlawful harassment for a professor to hang a poster inside his office of the word “War” with a red slash through it, because the extremist anti-war message involved could be construed as “threatening” to, “discriminatory” against, or “harassing” of military veterans. (I can’t reproduce the actual graphic, because it’s protected by copyright.) The tacit reasoning seems to be: opposition to a political policy can be construed as “threatening” to those who (presumptively and stereotypically) may be thought to support the policy (e.g., veterans can be presumed to support war); meanwhile, passive acquiescence in the status quo, however unjust, is legally obligatory and “professionally appropriate” behavior.

One implication here seems to be that while combat veterans can handle combat on the battlefield, they cannot be expected to handle ideas like war in a university. Presumably, all returning military veterans suffer from a form of PTSD so intense that they will collapse into a dysfunctional heap at the mere mention of the word “war”–from which it follows that the word must never be spoken in their presence (except, I suppose, to praise it).* A second and more general implication seems to be that  “professionalism” in the “corporate” (=academic) context requires us to avoid discussing anything that might offend anyone’s sensitivities, even if doing so is central to the academic enterprise.

As I said before, most of the criticism of “academic infantilization” has targeted the left from the right, but one group, essentially located on the right, seems to me to have taken the infantilization of academic discourse to a generally undiscussed extreme. The group in question is the anti-BDS movement (or more pedantically, the anti-BDS counter-movement, since it opposes BDS, which precedes it).** In saying this, I don’t mean to be pronouncing on the correctness or incorrectness of BDS as a strategy for dealing with the Israeli occupation. That’s a complicated topic on which I reserve judgment, and which I’d like to think through here over the next few months. What’s clear, however, is that whether BDS is right or wrong–even if it’s entirely wrong–its critics and the movement they represent are a threat to the academy and to political discourse as such.

Two tactics are essential to the anti-BDS repertoire and particularly subversive of rational discourse: (1) gratuitous recourse to the race card, in the form of reflexive accusations of anti-Semitism as a means of discouraging debate; (2) resort to the (literal) use of force through “lawfare” in order to put BDS out of commission by force of law, and thereby put an end to debate that way. Many groups (especially ethno-religious groups) employ one or the other or both of these tactics, but few have done a “better” job of combining them in a single integrated assault on the norms of discourse. In doing so, the anti-BDS movement has, on American university campuses, become the discursive equivalent of the “price tag” movement in Israel: they’re among the vandals of our intellectual life. I find it instructive that right-wing critics of infantilized/trigger-warning discourse have almost nothing to say about this brazenly obvious example of the phenomenon they deplore. But they don’t.

One task on my agenda here in Palestine is to clarify my own views on BDS: I’ve been asking everyone I meet here in Palestine (and will ask anyone I meet in Israel) what they think about BDS. Personally, I’m in favor of divestment on the Princeton model, agnostic about sanctions, skeptical about boycotts, and generally opposed to academic boycotts. I realize that that sentence by itself will cost me friendships across the entire political spectrum. But that’s where I stand, at least for now.

In favor of BDS: I worry about anti-Semitism and about double standards within BDS, but I’m also uncompromisingly opposed to the Israeli occupation/settlement enterprise, and frankly have lost patience with views of a sort that permit opposition to the occupation but proscribe doing anything about it. That’s led to nothing but five decades of occupation, subsidized and supported by the American taxpayer. In a sense, it’s led to something worse: our acquiescence in the idea that it’s our fate or role to support the morally insupportable by insisting that it’s somehow a moral imperative to do so. We’ve become mere means to the end of the Israelis’ making the Palestinians mere means to their ends. And that has to end. BDS looks like the only viable option for hastening the end, or at least doing what’s in our power to hasten the end. So in principle, sign me up.

Skepticism about B and S: Though divestment seems relatively uncontroversial to me, non-targeted boycotts and sanctions potentially seem indiscriminate in their punitive features, and counter-productive in the sense of attacking the very parts of the Israeli public most sympathetic to Palestinian rights. So I can’t sign on the dotted line to the whole package, but am not willing to dismiss BDS out of hand, either. (I can, however, think of both American and Israeli companies and institutions that deserve to be boycotted.)

That said, one can’t even begin to think clearly about any of that in the atmosphere of hysterics generated by the anti-BDS movement. Hence the need for an initial blog-based “ground clearing” operation. In the next part of this series, I’ll talk a bit about the anti-Semitic “race card,” and its effects on discourse about Israel. In a third part, I’ll talk about the attempt to deal with BDS through “lawfare.” I don’t mean either discussion to be comprehensive; it’s a complicated topic, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it periodically after this initial series is over (uncharitable interpretation: “Khawaja has an unhealthy obsession with that topic”). So there will be indefinitely many parts to this series as a whole.

More soon.

 *I teach at a “veteran friendly” institution, and have taught and taken classes with former combat veterans for years. They certainly do have special needs and sensitivities, but they also tend to be among the most mature and engaged students in a given classroom. I find Workplace Answers’s depiction of them frankly stupid, and I suspect that the veterans I know would, too.

**For vehicles of the movement, see The AMCHA Initiative, the BDS section of the Anti-Defamation League’s website, BDS Cookbook, Buycott Israel, Divest This, Divestment Watch, Engage, Israel Action Network, Israel On Campus Coalition, The Israel Project, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. See also Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm’s The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (2015). The title of the Nelson-Brahm book is a classic case of falsity in advertising: despite the title, the book is a wholesale critique of BDS as such, not just of academic boycotts. Despite the protests of a single author (Michael Berube), seven authors in the book go out of their way to argue that the BDS movement as a whole is anti-Semitic–a view clearly shared by the editors.

The Saudi-Israeli Double Standard

When the Israelis did exactly this in Gaza last year, there was plenty of indignation to be heard in and around the academy, despite the fact that the Israeli military action took place during the middle of the summer:

The Saudi escalation over the last few days had drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups as well as the United Nations. Saudi officials told residents of Saada on Friday to leave the area and declared the entire province a military zone.

In a statement on Saturday, Johannes van der Klaauw, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, said the threats against Saada had “put countless civilians at risk.”

“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is a contravention of international humanitarian law,” he added.

Mr. Saleh’s residence in Sana sits in a densely populated area, and near large shopping malls. Several airstrikes hit his compound overnight and early Sunday, slightly injuring a grandson and a brother-in-law of Mr. Saleh’s and two other people, according to people close to the former president who asked not to be named to discuss what happened.

For some reason, when the Saudis do the same thing–bomb indiscriminately within a declared military zone–there’s less comment, at least from the academy (though note the comment of the United Nations, which contradicts the usual pro-Israeli propaganda that Israel is the only country singled out for criticism by the UN). The usual explanation for the scrutiny of Israeli military actions is that as Americans (or Europeans) we’re complicitous in what the Israelis do, given the degree of military and economic support we provide them. But exactly the same thing applies to the Saudis. The degree of support may differ, but the difference makes little difference.

It won’t be easy for the US to distance itself from the Saudis, given our addiction to their oil, and our delusion that their absolute-totalitarian monarchy guarantees regional stability. I doubt we’ll hear anything useful from the academic departments in this country and elsewhere that are funded by Saudi sources. But it’s time to contemplate the idea of some equivalent of Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions from Saudi Arabia, which deserves it more than Israel does. The idea seems to have been contemplated here and there, but not in any sustained way.

So far, the best idea I’ve heard comes from my father:

I won’t do hajj in Saudi Arabia until they turn Mecca and Medina over to a responsible private entity that knows how to engage in crowd control, like the Disney Corporation. I don’t intend to give the Saudi kings my money for any reason, much less in the name of God.

Postscript, May 16, 2015: Some interesting and relevant material I’ve encountered, since writing this post.

(1) “Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk” (New York Times, May 13):

Effectively, the Israelis are warning that in the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel’s fault.

“The civilians are living in a military compound,” a senior Israeli military official said at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing delicate intelligence matters.

The situation mirrors the one that the Saudis are confronting in Yemen (discussed in the original post).

(2) “Israeli Demolition Plan for Bedouin Village Sparks Outcry” (New York Times, May 14):

After years of legal battles, Israel’s Supreme Court last week cleared the way for the government to uproot the nearly 60-year-old Bedouin Arab village of Umm al-Hiran, a dusty hill of ramshackle dwellings without proper electricity or water hookups, and in its place build “Hiran,” a new community seemingly catering to Jews that is expected to feature a hotel and country club.

NB: Umm al Hiran is in Israel proper, not in the Occupied Territories.

At first glance, the Israeli action here seems similar to urban renewal elsewhere (see Matt Faherty’s description of urban renewal in Dharavi, Mumbai, or Martin Anderson’s account of the American version). But scholars like Oren Yiftachel and Maha Samman have argued that the Israeli version involves a systematic form of planning-based “ethnocracy.” Arguably, it resembles our own placement of Native Americans on reservations.

Actions like this, I take it, explain the hostility to Lockean-type conceptions of property on the part of Palestinian political theorists and activists I’ve met: if from an Israeli perspective the Bedouins are “wasting” their holdings, they lose their entitlement to them (cf. Locke’s Second Treatise, para. 31.7-15). Put another way, Bedouin property seems to be regarded as “blighted” in a way that justifies urban renewal with an offer of compensation (cf. Berman vs. Parker [1954]). (Richard Epstein’s discussion of urban renewal is worth consulting in this context: Takings, pp. 178-80).

(3) “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities” (New York Times, May 10): a much discussed piece on tensions arising from the successes of BDS on American college campuses. Here are the letters responding to it. Here’s the Public Editor’s discussion. A broader view of the divestment issue. Divestment is voted down at Princeton.

(4) The controversy over Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Justice Minister-designate, and apparently, a fan of Ayn Rand: Criticism from Ha’aretz. A profile from The New York Times. Electronic Intifada, with a translation of her incendiary Facebook post (later taken down). I don’t know Hebrew, and can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translation; its accuracy has been disputed (by Shaked). [Just to clarify: she didn’t write the post; she re-posted it, with evident approval of its claims.]

(5) Back to the Saudis: The Saudis are unhappy that we aren’t willing to go to war with Iran to defend their kingdom. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis, while assuring the Saudis of their support in principle, have voted not to send troops to defend them against the Houthis. Meanwhile, the Saudis inform us that they expect better of Pakistan. Frankly, I hadn’t expected so much. The (imperfect) text of the Pakistani resolution. For once, I’m proud of Pakistan.

Postscript, May 30, 2015: It turns out that there is a boycott against the United Arab Emirates–or more precisely, against the Guggenheim in the UAE–led by an organization called the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. This boycott doesn’t seem much different in goal or rationale from the academic-cultural boycotts of Israel that are so bitterly condemned as evidence of anti-Semitism. It certainly contradicts the claim that Israel is unique in being “singled out” for boycott.

I just happened to read about this boycott in an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times, and haven’t had the chance to study it. I’m curious as to whether the author of the the Op-Ed can be construed as supporting or calling for a boycott himself. He doesn’t quite come out explicitly in favor of the Gulf Labor Artist boycott, but he certainly supports its aims. He also seems informally to be censuring NYU, the Guggenheim, and the Louvre; does that amount to a call for a boycott until they change their policies? I’m not sure.

The question is relevant in virtue of the stance taken by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which holds–puzzlingly, in my view–that there is a fundamental difference in kind between the sort of censure that the AAUP makes of institutions that fail to satisfy its strictures on academic freedom, and boycotts of the sort recommended by BDS and (I take it) the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition.

Martha Nussbaum has (to my mind unconvincingly) tried to flesh out the argument in a 2007 article in Dissent, “Against Academic Boycotts.” “Censure,” she claims (by contrast with boycotts), “does nothing to diminish the academic freedom or access of individuals: professors teaching at censured universities are actually helped in their attempt to secure their rights, and in the case of government-directed censure, academics and citizens generally are not affected at all.”

Contrary to Nussbaum, I don’t see how either censure or boycotts violate anyone’s freedom. In claiming that boycotts violate freedom, she seems to be presupposing a rather idiosyncratic conception of freedom; I’d be curious to know which one she has in mind, who has defended it, and where. Both censure and boycotts can diminish access, depending on the (highly contingent) consequences that arise from them.

Again, contrary to Nussbaum, if censure damages an institution’s reputation (which seems to be its purpose), the damage might affect enrollments, which might in turn affect whether or not the institution stays open. Having your institution closed certainly affects an individual’s “access” to the job that they had there.

Once again, contrary to Nussbaum, professors teaching at censured universities are not helped in securing their rights if they think that the censure was unjustified and if the censure damages the reputation of the institution. In that case, rights aside, they’ve been dealt with unjustly and/or harmed.

Finally, in the case of government-directed censure, the censure takes place in the name of every citizen. Some citizens may reject the basis of censure, and are certainly affected by a government that wrongheadedly directs censure in their name. So the case of government-directed censure turns on the justifiedness of the censure. When Narendra Modi was barred from entering the U.S., it seems obvious that the people who invited him here to speak were affected by the ban: they couldn’t hear him speak (at least in person). Likewise in the case of Tariq Ramadan: Notre Dame invited him to teach, but its expectations were adversely affected by his not being allowed into the country. I regarded (and regard) the Modi ban as justified and the Ramadan ban as unjustified, but in both cases, it seems obvious that citizens were affected by them.

In any case, I hope to blog on this and related issues sometime this summer.

Rights for Peace

This Op-Ed by Youssef Munayyer in today’s New York Times sounds just the right note on the Netanyahu victory, and convinces me, at last, of the need for some version of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel–or more precisely, what I like to call “D without BS,” divestment from companies that promote the Israeli occupation and settlement enterprise, minus boycotts and sanctions.

Here’s Munayyer’s statement of the problem:

Israelis have grown very comfortable with the status quo. In a country that oversees a military occupation that affects millions of people, the biggest scandals aren’t about settlements, civilian deaths or hate crimes but rather mundane things like the price of cottage cheese and whether the prime minister’s wife embezzled bottle refunds.

For Israelis, there’s currently little cost to maintaining the occupation and re-electing leaders like Mr. Netanyahu. Raising the price of occupation is therefore the only hope of changing Israeli decision making. Economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s increased its international isolation and put pressure on the apartheid regime to negotiate. Once Israelis are forced to decide between perpetual occupation and being accepted in the international community, they may choose a more moderate leader who dismantles settlements and pursues peace, or they may choose to annex rather than relinquish land — provoking a confrontation with America and Europe. Either way, change will have to come from the outside.

Here’s his solution:

The old land-for-peace model must now be replaced with a rights-for-peace model. Palestinians must demand the right to live on their land, but also free movement, equal treatment under the law, due process, voting rights and freedom from discrimination.

Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election has convincingly proved that trusting Israeli voters with the fate of Palestinian rights is disastrous and immoral. His government will oppose any constructive change, placing Israel on a collision course with the rest of the world. And this collision has never been more necessary.

The election results will further galvanize the movement seeking to isolate Israel internationally. B.D.S. campaigns will grow, and more countries will move toward imposing sanctions to change Israeli behavior. In the past few years, a major Dutch pension fund divested large sums from Israeli banks active in the West Bank, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been divested from companies, like G4S and SodaStream, that operate in occupied territory.

There won’t be real change on the ground or at the polls without further pressure on Israel. And now, that pressure will increase. For this, we have Mr. Netanyahu to thank.

It’s taken me fifteen years of dithering skepticism about divestment to get to the point of agreeing with an analysis like Munayyer’s–and I think there are legitimate questions to be asked about the criteria to be used to decide questions of divestment–but the election results demonstrate that the time really has come to divest from the occupation. The failure to consider the adoption or promotion of divestment for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism has simply become a way of rewarding the Israelis for their intransigence in the West Bank. I’m sorry, but I can no longer believe in the fairy tale of civility, good will, desire for peace, or respect for rights that we’re all obliged to attribute to the Israelis. It’s not there. This election tells us that the writing is on the wall. We’ve written them blank checks for decades; they’ve rewarded us with contempt. It has to end.

Though I don’t know where he stands on divestment, I recommend Hussein Ibish’s recent essays on similar topics in The National and in Now.

Postscript, March 22, 2015: I missed this piece by William Saletan in Slate a few days ago, but it collects a lot of useful evidence, and seems to me exactly on target. (ht: Qasim Rashid’s FB page)

Postscript, March 24, 2015: Matt Faherty sends along this interesting piece from Harvard Business Review on what the author takes to be the relative inefficacy of divestment as a strategy for change or protest. Without disputing the author’s narrow claim (about investments), I’d say two things: (1) the author himself concedes that divestment played an important role in the devolution of South African apartheid, and (2) part of the case for divestment is “symbolic” rather than “instrumental”; one divests from an immoral enterprise from “clean hands” considerations, to avoid complicity in the immorality involved. But the topic could use further discussion.

The two best studies of the South African case that I know are Ronald Segal’s Sanctions Against South Africa, and Robert Kinloch Massie’s Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years. Massie’s book (which covers divestment) is of particularly direct relevance. Segal’s book, though valuable, is more about sanctions than divestment per se.

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t really kept pace with the BDS literature on Israel/Palestine, but it’s expanding at a pretty rapid rate. The standard pro-BDS text is Omar Barghouti’s (et al) The Case for Sanctions against Israel. A standard anti-BDS text is Cary Nelson’s (et al) The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.   I haven’t read either book, so I’m not recommending or endorsing, just mentioning them.

Postscript, April 3, 2015: There’s recently been a controversy at Princeton University about divestment from Israel. This letter from John Waterbury (emeritus professor of Politics) is a nice statement of the case for divestment “from all companies that contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and continued siege of Gaza.”

I agree with the first conjunct but not the second. I think Princeton ought to divest from all companies that contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation/settlement enterprise in the West Bank, but not from companies that contribute to/profit from the Gaza siege. Waterbury doesn’t mention that if Princeton divests from companies that contribute to and profit from the Israeli siege of Gaza, it ought to do the same for companies that contribute to and profit from the Egyptian blockade of Gaza. It expresses a double standard–and plays into the hands of divestment’s critics–to fail to mention Egypt in the same breath as Israel in this context, when both countries are doing the same thing. (In fairness to Waterbury, the original statement from Princeton Divests does explicitly mention Egypt.)

I’d also explicitly want to stipulate that divestment cannot be construed to involve objections to ventures like this one, as many advocates of divestment would like to assert. The company in question is not profiting from the occupation but profiting despite it. Unfortunately, the distinction between profiting from and profiting despite the occupation seems to be lost on many left-wing advocates of divestment, who seem willing to pounce on any profitable Israeli-Palestinian venture, simply because it is profitable and puts Israelis and Palestinians in cooperation with one another on capitalist or quasi-capitalist lines. I don’t accept that, and don’t want to be associated with it. Here’s an example of the sort of attitude I have in mind (from Electronic Intifada). The review of “Under the Sun” contained in the preceding link is both wrongheaded and egregiously dishonest, and is just one of many reasons why skepticism about the divestment movement is justified even if divestment turns out to be the right thing to do.

Postscript, April 10, 2015: So let me get this straight: A bank can be held liable in federal court for facilitating terrorist attacks when it funds the terrorist organizations behind the attack, even if the bank follows established compliance standards designed to avoid liability.  Meanwhile, it’s anti-Semitic to suggest that we divest from companies that play an active role in the state-sponsored Israeli expropriation of Palestinians, even when that enterprise involves torture and homicide. In other words, facilitation of terrorist attacks (by Muslims) deserves legal sanctions, but divesting from state-sponsored rights violations (under the auspices of a Jewish state) deserves defamation. The “principle” involved here, if you can call it that: Jewish lives matter; Palestinian lives don’t. Palestinian terrorism matters; Israeli rights violations don’t. As a bonus: reckless, well-poisoning ascriptions of “anti-Semitism” are fair game in defense of Israel. Call it what you want, but it isn’t justice.

Boycott the Ayn Rand Society

This may turn out to be the least-publicized call for a boycott ever, but I’m going to call for one anyway: Philosophers attending the APA Eastern Division Meetings this year should boycott the meeting of the Ayn Rand Society. Frankly, in my view, they should boycott the Society itself.

For twenty-five years now, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has vilified libertarians as “nihilists,” and declared them too evil to “sanction,” i.e., too evil to endorse or deal with.

IS LIBERTARIANISM AN EVIL DOCTRINE? Yes, if evil is the irrational and the destructive. Libertarianism belligerently rejects the very need for any justification for its belief in something called “liberty.” It repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty” — and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior — political, moral, metaphysical. And since reality is the fundamental “restraint” upon men’s actions, it is nihilism — the desire to obliterate reality — that is the very essence of Libertarianism. If the Libertarian movement were ever to come to power, widespread death would be the consequence. (For elaboration, see my essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.”)

Justice demands moral judgment. It demands that one objectively evaluate Libertarianism, and act in accordance with that evaluation. It demands that one identify Libertarianism as the antithesis of — and therefore as a clear threat to — not merely genuine liberty, but all rational values. And it demands that Libertarianism, like all such threats, be boycotted and condemned.

“Boycotted and condemned.” I like that.

Despite some tricky-looking verbal gymnastics, ARI has not disavowed that view (and explicitly says that it has not). So vilification of libertarianism and libertarians remains the official view of the Ayn Rand Institute despite its paradoxical (that is, hypocritical) decision to make common cause with a few libertarian organizations.

The Ayn Rand Society (ARS) is a nominally distinct entity, but every single member of its Steering Committee is in some way affiliated with ARI. In any case, this year, they’ve decided to invite Yaron Brook as the main speaker at their APA Eastern Meeting (see the very first link in this post). Yaron Brook is the Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is therefore the man responsible for ARI’s continuing policy of defamation. ARS has invited him to address their meeting despite that fact, and absurdly enough, has invited two libertarians to respond to him. The Steering Committee’s knowledge of Brook’s institutional role–and of ARI’s ideological position–are, in my view, sufficient to justify a boycott of the meeting. (Read this exchange if you’d like a sense of Yaron Brook’s moral stature and his method of cognitive functioning. It’s best read in conjunction with this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

It makes things worse that intellectually, Brook is a shallow propagandist entirely lacking in bona fide qualifications as a political philosopher. (Nonetheless, like all Objectivist pseudo-intellectuals of his type, he insists on describing himself as an “expert.”) It’s therefore a mystery why ARS’s leadership would have invited him to speak at the APA. In 2012, I asked both the late Allan Gotthelf (ARS’s founder*) and James Lennox (the current co-chair of ARS’s Steering Committee) why Brook had been invited. Neither of them had an answer. If you’d like an answer, feel free to ask Lennox or his co-chair Gregory Salmieri for one, and share what you hear from them. But my own inference is that they have no defensible answer to give. I also find it a mystery why James Otteson and Peter Boettke would have accepted an invitation to discuss libertarian politics with someone responsible for a mass-movement campaign of anti-libertarian defamation, but I suppose one mystery begets another.

I’m happy to say that I’ve convinced at least one major philosopher to back out of an invitation to speak at an ARS event, and have convinced a few prominent libertarians to let their membership in ARS lapse (or in the case of those who had already let it lapse, not to renew their membership). I’d like to add indefinitely to that list.

Whatever you do, don’t seek refuge in the excuse that philosophers are obliged to have conversations with those with whom they disagree on moral issues. (Scroll down in the link to my exchange with Matt Zwolinski.) The response to that is: “no kidding.” The question is whether philosophers ought to help burnish the reputation of organizations that suborn and facilitate decades-long campaigns of character-assassination. If you want to be a part of that of effort, feel free. But then take responsibility for being a part of it. And don’t complain when you’re treated accordingly. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

*Correction (added after posting): To be precise, Gotthelf was ARS’s co-founder, along with David Kelley and George Walsh. ARS was co-founded by the three of them in 1990. But Walsh died in 2001, and Kelley has not been active at the leadership level in ARS for decades. Gotthelf was the central figure at the heart of ARS, and was responsible for the decision to invite Brook.

Postscript, December 18, 2014: I just happened to read an interesting article, “Meeting Ayn Rand on the Las Vegas Strip,” by John Paul Rollert (of the University of Chicago’s business school), that sheds interesting light on my call for a boycott of the Ayn Rand Society. The article is a report on this past summer’s ARI conference in Las Vegas, featuring Yaron Brook, among others. This passage, on a session on inequality, is particularly revealing of Brook’s approach to intellectual discourse:

“The Left dominates our intellectual world,” Brook declared. And yet, despite its success, the stated aims of the Left are merely a pretext for an agenda far more sinister than anything contained in the Democratic Party’s platform or, for that matter, a Michael Moore movie. Take the professed concern for the growing disparity between the very rich and the rest of America: The liberal impulse to address this gap may seem rooted in a sense of fairness or even a desire to promote social cohesion, but viewing it as such is extremely naïve. Indeed, it takes at face value the rhetoric of the Left, which keeps one from seeing it for what it really is: the language of a decades-long con game. “What they’re really after is not the well-being of anybody,” Brook explained. “They want power. They want to rule us.”

It gets worse. For if “the intellectuals” use fear-mongering around the so-called problem of inequality to seize power, they wield it in favor of a nihilistic vision of the human condition. They aim to systematically undermine and annul the great achievements of heroic men and women, an effort that will not only corrupt the “American sense of life” but one that stabs at the very heart of Ayn Rand’s vision. “We need to tell the truth about these bastards,” Brook said. “We need to reveal them for what they really are. We need to expose them to the American people for what their agenda really is. They’re haters. Their focus is on hatred. Their focus is on tearing down. Their focus is on destroying.”

ARI’s pretense at intellectual respectability is a laboriously-constructed affair. Those affiliated with it realize that if ARI’s intellectuals are to be taken seriously, they must convince their non-Objectivist interlocutors that they take those interlocutors seriously, and want to engage constructively with them. Taking them seriously means treating them with respect, and treating them with respect means not poisoning the well in disagreements about their views. The preceding passage shows those interlocutors what the rest of us have long known: it’s an act.

Anyone who attends Brook’s presentation at the APA will be treated to Brook-in-genteel-mode, Brook-as-he-presents-himself-in-a-prestigious-academic-setting, where his reasonability and ARI’s are under scrutiny and on the line. If you decide to attend his session (against my advice) ask him what he means by “We need to tell the truth about these bastards,” and “Their focus is on destroying.” What truth? What bastards? Who is focused on destroying what? Why not be explicit for a change? Does he mean the ones in the room next door? The ones who run the APA? The ones running the job interviews for the jobs his Objectivist Academic Center-groomed job candidates so desperately want? If so, tell him to say so. If not, ask him to explain.

It hasn’t occurred to Brook that someone might regard inequality as a proxy variable for structural injustices in an economy, including injustices caused by rights-violations. It hasn’t occurred to the apologists for the supposedly new and improved ARI that Brook’s well-poisoning is a direct implication of his avowed allegiance to Peikoff’s “Fact and Value.”  Nor has it occurred to academic philosophers that their coy and “sophisticated” defenses of dishonesty and phoniness find perfect expression in the likes of Brook–someone they’d likely regard as a mortal enemy, but whose practices they’ve unwittingly come to rationalize. If there were any justice in the world, Thomas Nagel and David Nyberg would be forced to attend the ARS session and have an awkward conversation with Yaron Brook: Brook would have to call them “bastards” intent on destroying the world, and Nagel and Nyberg would have to face in Brook the perfect exemplification of both Nagelian concealment and Nybergian dishonesty.  Frankly, if that meeting happened, I’d go to the session.

Incidentally, Rollert gets a lot of things right in his essay, but gets some things wrong. For one thing, he buys into the myth that “when it comes to ‘real’ philosophers–a designation that, for better or worse, indicates a perch in a Philosophy Department–Objectivism mostly goes unmentioned.” Not quite.  Again, not quite.

He also seems to equate radicalism with “escapism.” But Socrates, Aristotle, and Locke were all in their own way radicals. Arguably, so was J.S. Mill. None was an escapist. Contrary to Rollert, there’s no intrinsic connection between escapism and radicalism.

Finally, this seems to me wrongheaded:

By and large, when it comes to questions about the structural shortcomings of capitalism, the most persuasive answers will be of a dry and technical nature. They won’t savor of the sulfurous clash between the forces of good and evil….

There’s no reason to think that questions about the structural shortcomings of any political system should be reducible to issues “of a dry and technical nature.” The structure of a political system is something set by people. People have free will, and can be held responsible, not just for what they choose to do, but what (and how) they believe. If people culpably embed injustice into the very structure of a system, claims about structural shortcomings will not merely be “dry and technical.” They’ll be about justice and injustice, and that will “savor” of the clash between good and evil. No one thinks that structural racism is a merely “dry and technical” issue. There’s no good reason to think that other structural matters are “dry and technical,” either.

That is something that Rand got right, and it’s something that non-Randians might (ironically enough) learn from her. “Nothing made by man had to be; it was made by choice” (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 37). What was made by choice can be judged in moral terms, and that goes for the structural shortcomings of political systems as well.

As I was saying, not all choices are dry and technical. Just look at ARS’s choice to invite Yaron Brook to speak at the APA.