Hiring formalities

One other point has occurred to me, with regard to the firing/not-quite-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, which I have commented on here and here. Defenders of the university’s decision say that he had no right to have his academic freedom respected by UI because he was not formally in their employ. The fact that he had accepted a written offer of employment nearly a year before, agreed on a starting date, signed a contract, quit his previous job, moved across the country, and been assigned courses to teach in the fall semester were simply free-time activities, which only would become a real employment in October — a month after he was supposed to start teaching — when the board that meets once a semester ratified the hiring.

Whether this is legally accurate I can’t really judge. But I’m just thinking about the effect on future hiring, particularly at UI, but elsewhere as well. Clearly no one is going to let themselves be fooled this way by UI in the future. Everyone knows that claims of “just a formality” are simply deception at that university, and will insist on ironclad promises before they begin steps to move to a position there. Other people will just spare themselves the stress by not applying for positions at UI. (Remember, this is not about low-level jobs, of which there is a great shortage in the humanities, and a huge mass of qualified people desperate to take any meagre job. This was a tenured position.) And the ripples from this decision will affect other universities as well. Even if they make the offer in good faith, why take the chance that someone will comb through your public utterances and scare the university off hiring you. Best to insist on an ironclad contract before taking any steps. And this includes withdrawing the applications from other posts. Universities are likely to find senior academics who they thought they’d hired suddenly withdrawing shortly before they were supposed to start, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by the agreement until the formalities were taken wrapped up, and in the interim they got a better offer. This is likely to gum up university hiring in the US for a long time to come. Procedures will have to change, and the traditional role of occasional board meetings to ratify hiring decisions changed or eliminated.

Respect for others’ perspectives

It sounds like a good idea, but can get you trapped in contradictions. With regard to l’affaire Salaita, which I commented on here. Much more information from Corey Robin here and here, including links for various subject-specific petitions; a general academic petition (which I have signed), committing to a vaguely defined boycott of U Illinois until Salaita is rehired, is here. The public opposition to Salaita has been led by UI English professor and former AAUP president Cary Nelson. Leaping to his defence is Stanford German Studies professor Russell Berman:

Given that Illinois has a diversity policy that includes respect for others’ perspectives and world views, and that Salaita’s tweets “indicate that he would not respect others’ opinions on the Middle East,” Berman said Nelson’s conclusion “is reasonable, and I agree with him.”

Agree or disagree, Berman added, the “ad hominem attacks” on Nelson are “reprehensible.” Similarly, he said, “it is appalling when [Salaita’s supporters] blame pro-Israel or Jewish groups,” as some commenters have. Berman said that there’s no evidence thus far, only innuendo, that outside pressure influenced the university’s decision and the “fact that pro-Israel groups are nonetheless blamed is evidence of a rampant anti-Semitism in this affair, cut from the same cloth as the recent riots in France.”

The most important thing is to respect other peoples’ opinions! Since the people who disagree with me are a howling mob of rioters, they must be silenced. Dismissal from their jobs is too good for people on that side of the argument, since they have no respect for diversity of opinion.

Fortunately, the silent majority supports Nelson, as he is quoted in the same article saying

ad hominem attacks are also a BDS strategy that serves to silence opponents. Many faculty who believe the university made the right decision about Salaita are now unwilling to say so publicly.

Perhaps Nelson could do more to contribute to that climate of respect that he craves, where no scholar is silenced by the gripping fear of public criticism or, I don’t know, losing their jobs.

As Tom Lehrer famously declared (introducing his song “National Brotherhood Week”), “I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”

The political opinions of corporations

I’ve been intrigued by the forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Corporation, on account of his donation of $1000 to the 2008 campaign to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some fascinating issues it brings up:
1. I’d forgotten that the last great political battle over same-sex marriage was fought in California. And the conservatives won it. How fascinating to be reminded that barely five years ago it was still possible to muster a majority for banning same-sex marriage in California of all places, and in the same year that Barack Obama was elected (also promising to oppose same-sex marriage). And after that Pyrrhic victory the conservatives basically fled the field, overwhelmed by an almost inexplicable tide of social change. Continue reading “The political opinions of corporations”

The meaning of inversion

Probably some clever semiotician has written about this, but the recent bizarre affair of La Quenelle got me to wondering: “When is an inversion not a significant inversion?” Or rather, when does a physical inversion not invert the signification?

The lewd gesture, invented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (described by The Independent as a “black French comedian”, for some reason)  is described by The Independent thus

An arm with an outstretched finger is pointed at the ground. The other arm is folded across the chest. The hand is placed on the first arm, showing how far up your enemy’s backside you wish to slide your “quenelle”. This hand is sometimes moved suggestively upwards.

Anyway, the gesture has been described as anti-semitic, and the above-linked article describes how a footballer has been punished for performing the gesture on the field. How can a gesture be anti-semitic? one wonders. Is this like the joke about the woman who calls the police to complain about the man who whistles bawdy tunes when he walks past her house? Continue reading “The meaning of inversion”

Ambiguous Yids: The problem with speech bans

David Cameron has gotten himself onto the front page of the commuter newspaper Metro by commenting on the bizarre controversy over the use of the word “Yids” in English football.

Tottenham fans often chant the word, referring to themselves as “Yiddos” or “the Yid Army”. Some say it is a defensive gesture, to deflect abuse from opposition fans.
But the FA, backed by Jewish leaders, say it has no place in football and want it stopped.

The prime minister’s solomonic opinion is that the use of the word should be prosecuted only when it is used as an insult, not when people are applying it to themselves. The article quotes one Jewish supporter of a different team who says the word should be banned: “Yid is a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.” And a Jewish Tottenham supporter who says “This is part of our identity. As a Jewish person, I always find it empowering. We have turned this word into a positive.”

(I recall that when I lived in the Netherlands in the 1990s there was a similar controversy around the AFC Ajax football team in Amsterdam, that had the nickname de Joden, and whose rivals would taunt the fans with antisemitic chants like “Hamas, Hamas, de joden aan het gas” (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to this Wikipedia article, supporters of Ajax would sometimes wave Star of David flags, and at one point Hava Nagila could be downloaded as a ringtone from the club’s official website.)

Maybe Cameron should have gone the extra step, to realise that trying to come up with a sensible set of criteria for banning speech based on its content is a fool’s errand. There’s no way to deal with all the shades of meaning, when one person hurls an insult, the victim appropriates the insult as a badge of honour (as has happened with gay, queer, Black, Quaker, and impressionist), and someone else comments on the verbiage ironically.

New frontiers in child-rearing: How to (not) talk to your kids about fracking

The Guardian reports on a legal settlement, where a Pennsylvania family whose water supply was contaminated by gas drilling, received a payout for their now useless farm, and a gag order banning anyone in the family — expressly including the children, aged 7 and 10, from “ever discussing fracking or the Marcellus Shale”.

During the proceedings, the attorney representing Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy, reaffirmed the gag order on the children. “I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it,” he told the court.

The parents in this case did warn of the limited reach of the court:

We can tell them, they can not say this, they can not say that, but if on the playground…..

I know I have enough trouble getting my own children to stop talking about oil and gas exploration on the playground. It’s hard to imagine any court being willing to enforce an order penalising people for discussing certain topics because of an agreement their parents entered into, but the mere threat (and legal expenses) might intimidate them from ever challenging it.

Imagine the potential: Fundamentalist parents could enter into gag orders with their church, forbidding the children from ever speaking about Darwin or evolution. Many parents would happily sign a gag order blocking their four-year-olds from discussing poopy pants or boogers.

And why stop at one generation? Just imagine if, instead of fighting for the loyalty of consumers, generation after generation, a company like Coca Cola could simply pay current consumers to commit themselves and all their descendants to never mention the name of Pepsi, or any other cola drink. And while we’re selling off the rights of our descendants, we might as well replace the whole problematic student loan market with selling off our firstborn children into slavery. (Perhaps they can be chained to desks in the university admissions office, forced to read through 80 thousand personal essays.)

The whole idea of gag orders disgusts me. Paying someone not to talk about a subject… Why does that remind me of something absurd?…