The Need for Honest Discussion at American Colleges
It's really very difficult to understand what goes on in Poughkeepsie, New York. Few people could comprehend the point of the question asked by Gene Hackman in the film The French Connection: "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?"
Even fewer can understand the gibberish expounded, and paid for, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie on February 3, 2016.
Eight of the Vassar academic departments sponsored a lecture by Jasbir Puar, an associate professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University, whose academic specialty is reported to be queer theory. She was introduced as the author of a book that deals with "homonationalism," which she defined for us dummies as a Western tactic "to shore up and re-invigorate existing hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality towards the end of furthering military initiatives like the U.S. war on terror."
She is perhaps less known as a fashionable postmodernist intellectual giant and more widely known as a tenured professor of anti-Israeli rhetoric, a key figure in the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and a proponent of the resolution of the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Indeed, Puar introduced her lecture by congratulating the Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine, who had proposed a BDS resolution to be voted on in March.
The stated title of her talk was "Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters." If the title seemed grammatically incoherent, the description of it given was unintelligible mumbo-jumbo. Vassar was told, "This lecture theorizes relations between disciplinary, pre-emptive, and increasingly prehensive forms of power that shape human and non-human materialities in Palestine."
The current tuition for Vassar students is $63,000 a year. Two questions can be asked. Did those students who attended the lecture get their money's worth, and are they instructed at Vassar in a peculiar kind of language that can grasp the "prehensive forms," which no one else outside Poughkeepsie can penetrate?
Perhaps these are unfair questions, because we can never fully answer them for a simple reason. No official transcript was made, because of a ridiculous excuse for the need for "congeniality and respect." Thus, the world will never know the full extent of the wit and wisdom of Puar.
Some unofficial recordings are available. They do not do credit to what is expected in intellectual discussion at a distinguished college. The bizarre presentation, if one can possibly understand Puar's convoluted language, appears to be that Israel's occupation has resulted in the maiming and stunting of the Palestinian population, and that BDS is both necessary and a step toward armed resistance against Israel.
No concrete evidence or statistics were produced of the absurd allegation about Israeli behavior, but then hard facts or rational argument were of little relation to Puar's anti-Israel fulminations. The nonsensical and disgraceful allegations went on and on. Palestinians are dying a slow death, they are being collectively punished, Israel is harvesting the organs of Palestinians (a new version of the historic blood libel against Jews), Israel is experimenting on Palestinian children, Israel is an apartheid state collecting genetic data to identify who is Jewish, Israel is using "weaponized epigenetics," Gaza is an open-air prison.
The main point seems to be that Israel, by bio-political control, uses Palestinians for research and experimentation, though Puar seemed to qualify this by saying that "some speculate" that the Palestinian bodies are mined for organs for scientific research. In any case, the argument is to imply that Israel's behavior is akin to that of the Nazis.
Since Puar's allegations are incoherent fantasies, there is little point in responding to the false allegations of Israel's "settler colonialism" and its actions.
Everyone can understand that Puar's talk was not one of genuine intellectual intention, and that her main purpose was to continue her condemnations of Israel and her calling for boycotts of Israel. To her credit, Catherine Bond Hill, Vassar's president, has rejected the calls for boycott of Israel. But she should go farther and declare that the calls at Vassar for BDS are just one part of the organized resistance against Israel, since the movement's real purpose is the elimination of the State of Israel.
Vassar College is an important self-declared liberal arts college, but it has been the venue of a disproportionate series of lectures by those hostile to Israel. Among them are Max Blumenthal; Abi Abunimah in 2014, who talked of Israeli "ethnic cleansing"; Sa'ed Atshan 2015, who concentrated on Israel as "apartheid"; and Puar herself, who spoke also in 2012.
There is nothing wrong with such events for those who are interested in a biased point of view. The main academic principle is freedom of expression. However, Vassar and all academic institutions should exhibit a real balance on Middle East affairs and above all an objective assessment of the State of Israel and its actions.
It is an unfortunate truth that many in American faculties have disgraced themselves in two ways. One is by sponsoring anti-Israeli rhetoric, whether out of anti-Semitic beliefs or not, or at least not responding to vicious attacks. The other is to make clear the lack of intellectual substance, as well as the dishonesty, in some of the presentations at sponsored events.
Among the many distinguished alumni of Vassar are well known celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Jane Fonda, and Lisa Kudrow. One hopes they will use their celebrity to condemn the nonsense and the prejudice that has brought shame to their alma mater.