Two weeks ago, Idalia Friedson ’15 contributed an article titled “In Support of Biddy: Why We Shouldn’t Boycott Academia.” In her article, Friedson advances the argument that President Martin’s opposition to the American Studies Association’s boycott on Israel is grounded in principles of academic freedom. Yet at the same time as Friedson advocates for “academic freedom,” she constructs an argument that is ideologically lazy, patently biased and that reads little like any academic writing that I’ve encountered. An article that enumerated the grammatical errors, logical fallacies and factual inconsistencies of Friedson’s article is a project that I could — but chose not to — undertake. I would instead like to briefly question her conception of “academia” and how distant from political exigencies it really is.
Friedson’s article makes no effort to engage with the existing discourse surrounding the ASA boycott. For example, nowhere does she make reference to the queries Professor Nasser Hussain raised in his article, “Why the ASA is Right and President Martin is Wrong” — not to mention the veritable mountain of serious academic writing on the subject.
Furthermore, Friedson’s handling of language betrays a grave misunderstanding of the project of academic writing: to illuminate, rather than obfuscate, the complexities at hand — to challenge the reader, rather than to present him or her with factoids and one-sided descriptions of “the issues.”
George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language” that “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” It is this “cloudy vagueness” that we see in Friedson’s use of cryptic terms such as “serious, relevant issues in the word.” If these issues are, indeed, serious and relevant, why not spell them out? Why use this cryptic turn of phrase instead of stating, explicitly, an understanding of Israel’s establishment of settlements and so forth? The fact that such complex subjects are casually lumped together as “issues,” rather than discussed in specific terms, shows a reticence to think about them on more than a superficial level.
Note that Hussain’s article does not use this type of language. When he writes about the establishment of settlements or the power of a democratic citizenry to change its government, he describes it in specific terms of what is politically relevant. This type of language forces the writer (and perhaps more importantly, the reader) to countenance the subjects he or she renders. Writing about “the issues” in the abstract does no such thing — it allows the writer to feign, by abstraction, profoundness in his or her words without ever directly confronting the subjects he or she writes about.
I’m curious as to what “academia” means to Friedson. Reading her article, it seems as if “academia” is an empty concept, a bulwark that may be leaned upon for the purposes of political expediency. This suspicion is strengthened when one takes even a cursory look at her sources. Friedson shamelessly cites www.standwithus.org, a clearly pro-Israel website when she describes military occupation and the systematic disenfranchisement of Palestinians as “preventative measures.” But is a website, such as www.standwithus.org, which regales its viewers with images of smiling Israeli teenage girls, to be taken as an objective source of information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is this really the kind of source one should use when the manipulation of truth is a concern at the forefront of the debate? If so, wouldn’t it be in the interests of academic inquiry to also consider pro-Palestinian websites?
I hope that it is clear from my article that I do not necessarily align myself with either side of the debate but rather call for those who do to hold themselves accountable to the standards they ostensibly defend when invoking the sanctity of “academia.” I challenge anyone who purports to have the interests of “academia” at heart to read and honestly engage with the existing academic literature surrounding the ASA boycott — one might start with, for example, Judith Butler’s 2006 article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom” — perhaps in lieu of writing a hasty article consigning oneself to either side of the debate.