Returns to Illinois
By John K. Wilson
Steven Salaita spoke on Oct. 12, 2015 at the University of Illinois at Chicago before a supportive crowd of 150 about his new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, which Aaron Barlow reviewed and I also reviewed last week. Salaita will be speaking on Oct. 13 in Urbana.
He wondered about the controversy that got him fired, “Why was it such a big deal?” As Salaita noted, “it is absolutely remarkable to me that so many people got together to discuss behind closed doors an associate professor who was tweeting criticism of the war crimes of a foreign government.”
Salaita said, “I don’t consider myself to be an angry person,” and added, “I’m terribly shy and introverted.” He was shocked at the “angry and manaical” version of him painted by critics who didn’t know him. Salaita was also surprised at how angry his enemies were: “These folks got me fired, they took away my livelihood, …and then they acted like I had done something to them.”
But he decided, “I’m going to own the anger.” As he put it, “When I see 521 children bombed to death” and “toddlers blown to smithereens” that response is appropriate: “Yes, I was angry. Yes, I was offensive.”
I asked Salaita about how he would view an angry pro-Israel professor, and the possible desire of some leftists to fire a professor like that.
Salaita noted, “free speech is an easy concept to problematize.” But he said, “I take a pretty traditional view that whatever problems that exist with the inconsistency of its practice….It’s the most useful tool we have available to us to do this organizing work”
Salaita said about the idea of free speech, ”I find in it a sort of indispensibility.” He noted, “I don’t like the idea of someone with a differing political view facing some kind of censure.”
As Salaita said, “I’m deeply skeptical of adminsitrators reacting to a public outrage using the discourse of student well-being as their rationale. I think we should all be suspicious of that structure.” Although he is not an absolutist, Salaita said: “I would tend toward more free speech absolutism.”
But Salaita said, “notions of American exceptionalism around academic freedom and free speech are nonsense.” As he put it, “I went to the Arab world to get free speech.”