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September 11, 2016 4:38 am

The Cowardice of Decent Professors

avatar by Fred Baumann

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Syracuse University campus. Photo: Syracuse University.

Syracuse University campus. Photo: Syracuse University.

Pro-Israel bloggers like William Jacobson and Caroline Glick have brought much attention to a fiasco at Syracuse University first reported by The Atlantic. The invitation to Shimon Dotan, a leftist Israeli filmmaker, to speak on and show his anti-settler movie “The Settlers” at a Syracuse conference on religion and film, was revoked because of the fear of pressure from campus activists supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. While Jacobson and Glick wrote mordant commentaries, pointing to the alarming advance of antisemitism on campus, and The Atlantic stressed the role of political correctness, to me the most interesting character in this story is M. Gail Hamner, the tenured professor who disinvited Dotan. Here are extracts of her letter of disinvitation, taken from Jacobson’s blog, with his emphases. The letter is a classic example of shame-filled shamefulness:

I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews. Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation….. I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.

After this came out, as the Algemeiner reported, Syracuse University overruled her and promised, in a high-minded statement of its principles, to re-invite Professor Dotan. In itself that was good news, even if, as Jacobson emphasized, it averted its administrative eye from the dirty work that had put those pressures on Professor Hamner in the first place. Professor Hamner then issued another shamefaced apology in which she describes herself as “overly concerned” about “how others would react,” and apologizes for not having viewed the film in advance. Note, however, that confessing to the crime of not seeing the movie in advance amounts to the admission that if only everyone had known it was an anti-settler movie maybe it would have been okay. (Apparently not though, if Syracuse Professor Miriam Elman, the subject of the Algemeiner interview, is to be believed.)

Professor Hamner is the focal point, the emblem of an issue that should get some attention along with antisemitism and political correctness. Now that the Syracuse administration has told her she made the wrong choice she discovers that she was “overly concerned.” Better late than never. But what scared her so much in the first place? What made her film colleague so anxious that she passed the BDS pressure on to Hamner? Nothing more than losing “credibility,” which almost certainly means being treated as a pariah by the politically orthodox. This is the politics of the middle school lunch room turned monstrous. But as in that lunch room, in academia, too, bullies and cowards have a reciprocal relation. Ideological bullies, when confronted with honest, forthright, even indignant (if well-controlled) opposition, typically back off. They don’t know what to do when the principles they pretend to obey are upheld against them, when their pose of victimization is demolished, and when they are forced to act out the thuggishness they love to threaten. In my experience, when met with principled resistance, the bullies soon take refuge in wailing that it is they who are being bullied.

We will see if the joint letter of protest that the Algemeiner reported on as well in that story, gets a lot of support and makes a difference. “A small group of faculty is depriving us of our rights and we will not tolerate this,” [Syracuse Professor of Political Science] Elman declared.” Good for her and her co-signatories. But, as on most campuses, they have tolerated it until now. How come? Why is it so easy for the bullies? Simply because the nice people, who wouldn’t engage in bullying themselves, are too afraid to object. Thus the victims always think they are alone. At the root of the rise of antisemitism on American college campuses is, as it is so often, the moral cowardice of those who have decent instincts but always find reasons not to act on them.

Every year, I hear baccalaureate and commencement addresses urging our graduates to be open, tolerant, kind. Good stuff, that. But just once I would like to hear someone speaking up for civil courage, for the basic decency to step in where bullying of any kind is occurring and to back down the shouters, the sneerers, and the insinuators, no matter in what garishly torn and blood-stained victim-wear they costume themselves. Most administrators (not all, my experience tells me) are gutless; in a sense they are paid to be, to smooth things over and bend to the prevailing winds. But the cowardice of decent professors, is, I fear, the real issue here as elsewhere. And unfortunately, I know no cure for it.

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