There is a very good case to be made that Cary Nelson’s inability to place discussion of Israel — particularly discussion of any strong and committed criticism of Israel — within the bounds of rational thought is merely symptomatic of the double standard the most extreme defenders of Israel employ on a regular basis.
Though Nelson, a past president of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP), has been vocal in the campaign against Steven Salaita, it is also important to try to resist concentrating too much energy on someone who daily recedes into insignificance.
Yet it is impossible not to comment on the latest and perhaps most dramatic instance of Nelson’s weird ability to live comfortably in contradiction, especially as his “logic” has now been endorsed by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
This week the board was faced with the task of deciding on the fate of not one but two scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where Nelson is emeritus professor of English.
The Salaita case has been much commented on — in a piece I wrote for Salon I outline the parameters of the case and draw attention to the fact that Nelson had defended Ward Churchill’s academic freedom while he refuses to now do the same for Salaita.
Essentially, Salaita was offered a tenured appointment at UIUC, but it seems that after outside Zionist groups, students writing as part of an organized campaign and donors complained about the appointment, drawing attention to several tweets Salaita posted that were sharply critical of Israel, Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Salaita that she was revoking his job.
A letter to Wise composed by distinguished legal scholars, drawing out the illegality of her actions, has been posted online.
Yet Nelson has remained a staunch defender of the university’s actions, saying that, yes indeed, those tweets, regardless of all legal reasoning, can and should be used to fire Salaita. In my Salon article I contrast this to the Churchill case, where Nelson was perfectly okay defending a scholar who had made equally if not more offensive comments:
As president of the AAUP Nelson actually defended (albeit belatedly) a professor who, after 9/11, wrote a manifesto declaring that the bombing of the World Trade Center was the proper retribution for America’s past deeds, and that those who perished there deserved to die because they were “little Eichmanns” working in the “techno-corps.” Yes, Cary Nelson argued for Ward Churchill’s reinstatement. So if he can do that for Ward Churchill, why can’t he for Steven Salaita? Easy — it’s simply because Salaita’s target is not US foreign policy or global capitalism, it is Israel. One might forgive Nelson his base hypocrisy, if it were not for the fact that it comes at the expense of another person’s career and livelihood.
Outrageously, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees has agreed that voicing opinions critical of Israel in an “uncivil” manner (whatever that is) are grounds for dismissal. Now it is crucial to see past their alibi for dispensing with First Amendment protections of free speech — the trustees claim it is not a matter of what he said, but how he said it. But so far not a single piece of evidence or statement of methodology as to how they determined he crossed the line has been offered.
Contrast this with how they, and Cary Nelson, have treated another case brought before the trustees at the very same time as Salaita’s.
The other case is that of James Kilgore. As Inside Higher Ed explains, in 2011, “two years out of prison for his involvement with a 1975 bank robbery in which a woman was killed,” Kilgore applied for a position at UIUC (“Professor With a Past,” 8 May 2014).
Kilgore fully disclosed his conviction for second-degree murder, possession of an explosive device and passport fraud. He had served his time and was a fully rehabilitated member of society. The university employed him, and things would probably have remained the same had it not been for the fact that in February the News-Gazette, the same newspaper that publicized Salaita’s tweets, published a series of articles exposing Kilgore’s past.
Once that controversy started, the Nelson machine kicked into high gear. As Inside Higher Ed then reported:
Cary Nelson, a professor of English, member of the Senate and past president of the American Association of University Professors, said via email: “This whole effort was triggered by the university administration’s violations of academic freedom and shared governance when it decided to tell James Kilgore his services as a part-time teacher would never be needed again.”
Nelson continued: “Such global commitments to lifetime non-reappointment are only issued with cause: incompetence, fraud, or moral turpitude. Only a week earlier the administration gave him a ringing endorsement. In the meantime, a News-Gazette slander piece was published. It told the university nothing that James hadn’t already disclosed when he was hired. The university acted out of political cowardice, ignoring the wishes of Kilgore’s department and doing so [without] faculty review.”
Of the three “causes” which Nelson feels are grounds for dismissal, only one could possibly be of use here — moral turpitude. And yet how could vehemently moralistic tweets, decrying the killing of innocents, possibly be construed as evidence of “moral turpitude”? Only in Cary Nelson’s upside-down world.
Note how quickly Nelson forgets his principles when the issue is not someone convicted of second-degree murder, but someone who has exercised his First Amendment rights and tweeted sharp criticism of Israel’s rampage in Gaza, in which it had by that point in time murdered close to two thousand people, the vast majority of them civilians and of those civilians, some four hundred children.
Salaita’s tweets vociferously voiced his moral outrage at these killings, but his anger and outrage certainly came nowhere close to actually abetting in the murder of another human being.
Now I absolutely agree with the Cary Nelson who defended Kilgore, in precisely the terms he did. But how in the world does Nelson square that passionate and righteous defense with his disproportionate and utterly contradictory condemnation of Salaita?
Nelson represents simply the most extreme expression of a basic double standard that is not his alone. It is now manifest in the Board of Trustees’ disgraceful decision on Steven Salaita, and in the fact that Chancellor Wise is still considering Kilgore’s case.
David Palumbo-Liu is Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.