According to folk singer Dar Williams, a friend of the professor and activist Corey Robin since their days at Robert E. Bell Middle School in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., Robin was “a pretty unflinching intellectual,” even as a child. Over the phone, she recently told the story of how, on a class trip to D.C., Robin had their young math teacher “almost in tears” and saying, “But if life has no meaning, then why do we live?” in response to something Robin had said that had “just blown her mind.” She remembered her friend as an independent thinker even in high school: “I think he defied categorization because he didn’t care” what others thought, making him “hard to peg.” She added, “I think a lot of people were somewhat intimidated by him.” As an adolescent, she saw her friend as “the kind of person who’s going to grow up and keep his values,” which, she said, she thought he’d done.
I first met Robin in the act of keeping his values. On Sept. 9, 2014, he awaited his arraignment with a small crowd at the 100 Centre Street courthouse in lower Manhattan. The group, which included political scientist Norman Finkelstein and novelist Benjamin Kunkel, had been arrested for civil disobedience on July 29. At the courthouse, Robin told me that the idea had been Finkelstein’s: As the situation in Gaza had deteriorated, Finkelstein had suggested a protest in front of the Israeli mission to the United Nations. The group had lain down in the street, blocking traffic. Robin spoke fondly of the “camaraderie” he’d experienced in jail with the others after their arrest and of the “sweet, charming people” who’d surrounded him. Everything about the moment, from the type of civil disobedience it had been to the courthouse scene that ensued—even some of the sandals and earrings spotted in the crowd—seemed of a piece with protests of yore. Not hippie-ish, exactly, but old-timey New York left. Michael “Meathead” Stivic would not have been out of place.
Robin’s principal claim to fame as an activist, however, is his involvement in a more distinctly 21st-century undertaking: Through his extensive use of social media, Robin has played a key role in the protest against University of Illinois’ decision to retract Steven Salaita’s tenured job offer following some forceful anti-Israel Tweets. Robin covered the story extensively on his blog and organized a boycott of the university. He has also sought to defend Salaita against charges of bigotry, doing a close reading of one of the most inflammatory Tweets (“Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948”) to argue that, properly understood, the Tweet does not condone anti-Semitism. He sees Salaita’s predicament as part of a broader labor issue. Robin’s concern is in part that criticism of Israel is being silenced, but also that a professor was fired for exercising free speech.
While his activism is what’s put him in the spotlight, Robin is also an accomplished academic, a graduate of Princeton and Yale, and the author of many scholarly publications. A political-science professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY’s Graduate Center, he is currently department chair. His 2011 book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin offers a surprisingly sympathetic theory of conservatism. A recent (public) Facebook post is about a cat in urgent need of a new home (his wife, Laura Brahm, is a serious cat lover). The previous post, from 10 hours prior, calls out critics of Israel who claim to oppose the occupation but not the state itself for their refusal to sign a partial-divestment petition.
This category-defying ubiquity has made Robin something of a Sartre for the social-media age. And as he straddles—and pushes—the boundaries of higher education, Robin in some ways embodies the emerging question about the academy these days: Is it a protected bastion of civic values, where freedom of inquiry and speech are championed? Or is it instead a hotbed of anti-Israelism and, more broadly (as some high-profile people have begun arguing), a haven simply for political correctness?
On a mid-October evening, I met Robin at a Prospect Heights café he suggested, Joyce Bakeshop, near the Park Slope home he shares with his wife and daughter. Joyce—a favorite from my grad school years—opened in 2006, and back then it seemed posh for the area. No longer. I arrived early to get a table (and a cannelé) and saw mothers with young kids (a sign from the café reads “Baby T-shirts $18”); a woman in ’90s nostalgia garb (floral dress, flannel shirt, combat boots) who looked too young to remember the original; and an older man reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Perhaps it’s just because I now live in Princeton, but the atmosphere felt very of-the-moment. It seemed an appropriate place to be meeting a public intellectual of the social-media age, as well as an American Jew disillusioned with Israel.
Robin—the only boy among six children—came of age in the less-hip confines of Chappaqua, and he describes growing up in the wealthy suburb as “complicated.” While he can’t find enough praise for the public high school he attended—“I really felt like I had my intellectual awakening there”—the town’s cultural atmosphere wasn’t for him. He recalled having “felt like a bit of a fish out of water,” despite a socioeconomic background similar to that of his classmates. Dar Williams describes growing up in Chappaqua in similar terms to Robin and mentions English and history teachers who alerted them to the fact that theirs was a “homogeneous, privileged environment that wasn’t like the rest of the world.”
When he was a child, Robin and his family were members of a Reform congregation of the choir-and-organ variety, but, starting in graduate school, Robin become more observant. He described the Jewish instruction he got at Hebrew school as “terrible”; the prayer book as “just dreck.” As a graduate student at Yale, he began to think of himself as more of a Conservative-movement Jew, and he now attends services at the Park Slope Jewish Center every week or every other week. His year at Oxford University’s Jesus College (1987-88) served as a kind of Jewish awakening for Robin. It was then that he began to simultaneously have doubts about Israel and to become more interested in Judaism as a religion. It was, according to Robin, when he lost interest in the cultural Jewishness of “bagels” and “Woody Allen.”
England was also his first experience “being marked as Jewish” by those around him. “People would want to talk about” his being Jewish, he recalled, remembering a mix of “curiosity” and suspicion.
“I think Europe has that phenomenon where secular people think of anyone who’s religious is marked somehow, and particularly if you’re Jewish,” he told me, adding that the people who viewed him as so saliently Jewish weren’t preoccupied with his religious practice, just the fact of his being a Jew. And around time that his Jewish identity evolved, he also underwent a different sort of awakening, in the area of class-consciousness.
At the courthouse where we first met, Robin reluctantly used the expression “not in my name” to explain what motivated his speaking out on the Mideast conflict, calling himself an “accidental activist” on the issue. At Joyce, he told me about his similarly inadvertent path to labor activities. His parents weren’t involved in the labor movement, and when he arrived at Yale, he opposed the grad-student union. “I hated student activists when I was an undergraduate,” he recalled, noting that he saw them as “playing at being working class.” He then came to agree that a certain basic standard of living was necessary for the life of the mind to flourish. University of Connecticut professor of Judaic Studies Jeffrey Shoulson told me that it’s “largely to [Robin’s] credit” that he became as involved as he did in the Graduate Employees Student Organization, or GESO, the still-unrecognized Yale union.
Robin remembered a moment of awakening after he had joined the union. A Yale undergrad yelled, “Get back to work” from a window on campus, chastising Robin and the others on strike. Robin said he felt “like a maid,” which, in turn, led him to wonder why it was any better for a maid to experience that kind of humiliation. (He shared the same anecdote, I later found, in a 2003 New York Times op-ed.)
Later on in graduate school, another strike lost him three members of his dissertation committee, an experience that may help explain why he remains pro-union. The political scientist Steven Smith, one of the Yale professors with whom Robin came into conflict, told me over the phone that while he opposes the graduate student union, their break came prior to Robin’s union involvement. The two were simply “not on the same wavelength.” According to Smith, “there was a depth of anger in his personality, and in him, that was directed against our university.” This anger, recalled Smith, “was driving his politics and his union activities.”
I can’t say I saw much of this anger in Robin, either in person or in his writing. He does, however, remain committed to calling out faculty opposition to unions. He said he saw something “feudal” in how the professor-student relationship can play out, which points to how even ostensibly liberal professors often oppose student unions. From the union, Robin explained, he absorbed an “it’s not just about you” message.
Those same principles inform his scholarship. In The Reactionary Mind he writes, “Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.” In Robin’s understanding, conservatives aren’t traditionalists who seek to maintain the status quo, but counterrevolutionaries: “People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing.”
In an era of an intensely self-policing left, rife with Twitter infighting and self-identified progressives accusing one another of unchecked privilege, Robin distinguishes himself by focusing instead on the opposition, whom he finds compelling, worrisome, and, often, amusing. This is most evident in The Reactionary Mind, but is clear from his other writings as well. In one blog post, Robin calls out a fellow Tiger alum who’d written in to the Princeton Alumni Weekly to say that men would have no interest in reading fiction about women who don’t meet conventional beauty standards.
“Many of Homer’s characters are strapping, bloodthirsty warriors,” Robin writes. “Many of Swift’s characters are giants or midgets. Many of Mann’s characters are phlegmatic hypochondriacs. And yet, for centuries, women have somehow managed to get past the outer trappings of these characters. So why is it so inconceivable for Houghton Hutcheson from Bellaire, Texas, to get inside the mind of a plus-sized woman?”
For Corey Robin, as for many these days, online discussions are the site of exciting intellectual exchange.
Robin’s belief that conservatism is to be reckoned with has had an impact on the left. Over the phone, Brown University political scientist Alexander Gourevitch told me that, as someone on the left, he had been “more critical of liberals” than of the right, but that “Corey’s made me take more seriously thinking about the critique of conservatism.” Gourevitch got to know Robin when Robin served as an external reader for his doctoral thesis, and the two are now friends. Robin’s work, he explained, “has made me think somewhat differently about the dimensions, the range of political positions that one has to take seriously and think about.” He called The Reactionary Mind “a very important contribution to the debate about the history of different political traditions and how we write about them.” While he called Robin’s books “very original works of political theory,” he also noted that Robin is “doing political theory on his blog a lot,” and that his online writing may have a greater impact than the books. He cited Robin’s “substantive blogging” on Hannah Arendt, Supreme Court decisions, and other not-so-racy topics.
Over the phone, UConn’s Shoulson, a grad-school colleague of Robin’s who remains in touch with him primarily through social media, noted that Robin’s hybrid approach has gotten pushback, because “there’s a kind of suspicion of people who lead too public an intellectual life.” Some (Shoulson doesn’t name names) see blogging and similar as “pandering or diluting” strictly academic activity and view Robin as a “publicity hound.” Shoulson suspected a kind of jealousy in those expressing that sentiment and considered it “a shame that people take that position.” (Not every professor can expect to have books reviewed, profiled, and promoted in the New York Times.) Shoulson added that he thinks some of the pushback is presented as being about academic-seriousness concerns, but that “if you dig deeper,” it’s about hostility to Robin’s political views.
It’s not simply that Robin is a political theorist who, in his spare time, addresses a broader public. Much of his work defies categorization. The chapters of The Reactionary Mind include pieces previously published in highbrow but not strictly academic outlets like The Nation and the London Review of Books. One of his papers that appears on the scholarly database JStor is a coauthored account of his role as a graduate student union organizer. His personal website and blog offers an unapologetic mix of academic and otherwise. His CV includes everything from a “Best First Book in Political Theory Award” to appearances on “Bloggingheads” and blog-related awards—i.e., to the very sort of supposedly distracting accomplishments that grad students were, not that long ago, warned to avoid even accumulating in the first place.
In his Chronicle of Higher Education profile, from Sept. 19, 2014, Marc Parry notes that Robin “sees his activism […] as an extension of his political-theory work,” and he goes on to present Robin’s scholarly interests. But an approach like Robin’s would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when it seemed at least plausible that professors were being denied tenure for having blogs. As Scott Lemieux reminds us, in a post about the Salaita case that also cites Robin, fears that an online gaffe could end a career have long haunted the academic blogosphere. In 2005, the Chronicle ran a piece by the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble, who claimed that academic hiring committees see blogs—whatever their content—as red flags. Tribble’s description of blogging at its “worst” seems, in the post-Facebook age, quaint: “A blog easily becomes a therapeutic outlet, a place to vent petty gripes and frustrations stemming from congested traffic, rude sales clerks, or unpleasant national news.” If online posts of that nature made a person unemployable, today’s unemployment rate would be substantially higher. The Salaita case, however, demonstrates that certain sorts of online speech can still be a liability.
There’s a clear overlap between Robin’s analysis of employment dynamics in the Salaita case and examples he presents in his scholarship, particularly in his 2004 book, Fear: The History of a Political Idea. One line he keeps strict, however, is between his anti-Zionist activism and his teaching. On his blog, he chastises an unnamed male reporter for finding it hard to believe that the topic would never come up and for “not understanding the difference between what we do inside the classroom and what we do outside the classroom.” In another post, referencing the Salaita controversy, he complains that “some people are so quick to believe that how someone acts on Twitter—or Facebook or the comments section of a blog—inevitably bleeds into how she acts in the classroom,” adding, “since Salaita’s critics are so convinced that how someone acts outside the classroom is a good measure of how they will act inside the classroom, I suggest we investigate how every professor with college-age children treats her children at home in order to assess how she will treat her students in class.” For Robin, academic activity and world-at-large activism are deeply linked, but he insists that the classroom is not the place for a professor—or, at least, for him—to express him- or herself politically.
In a New York Times story from February about observant Jews who are critical of the Jewish state, Tablet editor-at-large Mark Oppenheimer makes reference to Robin’s “opposition to Israeli policy and his support for the BDS movement” (that’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). At the courthouse, Robin confirms that he identifies as “anti-Zionist.” At Joyce, I asked him to elaborate. What would the Corey Robin solution to the conflict look like?
Ideally, he said, he’d like to see one state “of two peoples” with a “dual claim on each other,” that would serve as “a refuge for both peoples.” He said that he’s not inherently opposed to Jews having a state, but thinks “it fucks Jews up” to have one, and that the “armed nationalism of it corrupts the religion and the culture.”
Robin compared Israel’s place in the background of his childhood with “the weather.” Vehement support for Israel was less central to being Jewish, but American Jews hadn’t yet begun to turn away from the state. He said that today, some of his sisters are “disaffected with Israel,” but added that their mother remains “pretty pro-Israel” and experiences his current stance as a sort of “betrayal.” In a 2013 post called “Jews Without Israel,” Robin—who was born in 1967—explains his trajectory:
In the summer of 1993, I was in Tennessee with my then-girlfriend, who was doing dissertation research there. Toward the end of the summer, I bought a copy of Said’s The Question of Palestine and read it in two days. As we drove back to New Haven, all hell broke loose. She was Jewish and at the time a firm if critical believer in Israel as a Jewish state. I began the car ride by voicing some tentative criticisms, but the conversation quickly escalated. It ended with me declaring that no child of mine would ever step foot in the State of Israel (I was kind of melodramatic in those days). We didn’t speak for a week.
Robin is a particularly forceful critic of Israel in part because he’s so obviously not what many would call a “self-hating Jew.” He’s not interested in being—to borrow an expression from Hannah Arendt—an exception Jew, one striving to spare himself from anti-Semitism by claiming difference from the (supposedly) monolithic Jewish horde. On the contrary, he sees himself as part of a broader shift. In that same blog post, he writes, “respected voices in the mainstream media like Glenn Greenwald (and before him, Tony Judt) have made it possible for Jews to speak our minds on the topic. Now my little tribe within a tribe is more vocal, and suddenly it is our opponents who feel like they have to be careful around us and not vice versa.” At the courthouse, he said, “It’s pretty clear that there’s a growing critical culture,” noting that “younger Jews” are especially less interested in Israel, either critical or indifferent.
Robin recalled having initially opposed BDS. But then after “a huge shitshow” emerged surrounding a Students for Justice in Palestine panel at Brooklyn College that his department had co-sponsored, his views on the movement began to change. He now thinks BDS “has the ability to start transforming public opinion.” His evolution on this issue recalls his evolution toward unionism: an initial, temperamentally conservative dismissal of a left-wing movement, followed by a realization that it is, after all, where he belongs.
While he may have disappointed his mother, it would be a tougher case to make that he’s failed as a Jew. His anti-Zionism if anything comes out of his religious beliefs. In a post responding to critics of his involvement in the BDS movement, titled “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” he writes:
We have an entire liturgy devoted not only to the sorrow of being expelled from that very land, but to the obligation not to forget it. You would think a people who never got over what happened to them two millennia ago—and whose arguments for the land are often based on claims from two millennia ago—would be a little less cavalier about the memory of a people who haven’t gotten over what happened to them less than seven decades ago.
In another, he fumes, “I could convert to Christianity, declare myself no longer a Jew, start and sell a line of artisanal bacon, raise my daughter to be a Wiccan, and many Jews I know would be totally cool with that,” but anti-Zionism doesn’t fly. “This is what Zionism has done to Judaism,” he writes.
Shoulson said that he’s had to defend his friend against accusations of “being self-hating and anti-Semitic and so on” that would appear on Facebook. While Shoulson—who is involved in The Third Narrative, a group of academics who criticize Israeli policy but defend the state’s existence—noted that his views on how to approach the conflict don’t match up with Robin’s, he doesn’t view “antagonism towards Zionism” as incompatible with being part of the Jewish community. “I respect him for [his anti-Zionist activism] even if I disagree with him,” said Shoulson.
It’s difficult not to be struck be the volume of what Robin writes online, especially once one takes into account the blog-and-comments, Facebook, and Twitter. Shoulson, who approves of Robin’s efforts to speak to an audience beyond the ivory tower, nevertheless wondered “how he finds the time.” Robin expressed some, but not much, ambivalence about participating in threads on contentious issues. “Over time I’ve tried to do it less,” he said. “It does raise my blood pressure.” But for Robin, as for many these days, online discussions are the site of exciting intellectual exchange. Did it seem a mystery how professors of earlier generations managed to teach, research, and discuss ideas with other thinkers over brandy in a wood-paneled room? Some online arguments, Robin said, are “productive and fun,” and help “clarify terms.” His principal objection is to a tone that sometimes appears, he said, in discussions of conservatism. “What I hate the most is turning political disagreements into accusations that the other person is stupid.” Refusing to underestimate an ideological opponent seems a consistent trait of Robin’s thought.
In a Jacobin article from February 2014 titled “Jewfros in Palestine,” the interlocutor Robin takes seriously is Samantha Shokin, a 24-year-old freelance writer. The previous month, Shokin had written a Tablet magazine essay recounting how a trip to Israel spelled an end to “a lifetime hating [her] Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence.” As a fellow Jewish woman-of-frizz, I had taken note of the essay as well and was glad—if a little surprised—to see a Jewish publication covering this issue.
Robin’s piece, though quite critical of Shokin’s, doesn’t go the places one might expect. He doesn’t question whether hair can be political. Nor does he—like some commenters on Shokin’s piece—take the opportunity to make the true but irrelevant point that not all Jews have the same hair. He understands (and later spells out) that a certain sort of hair is understood as “Jewish” and that this has a specific impact on the Jewish women with that trait.
His argument is far more complex. He begins by calling the essay “moving” and seems at first to get where Shokin’s coming from: “[I]t’s quite clear in Shokin’s piece that she’s not simply describing her personal insecurities. She’s tapping into a wider conversation, familiar to members of other ethnic minorities, about how particular conceptions of beauty become markers of status and inclusion—and, concomitantly, inferiority and exclusion.”
His grievance lies elsewhere:
[T]he piece suffers from an obliviousness I can’t help flinching at. Nowhere in Shokin’s discussion does she even give a hint that she’s aware that her feeling at home comes at a cost to someone else. How might a teenage Palestinian girl in the West Bank—undergoing not only the adolescent angst that Shokin once endured but also the facts of the Occupation—read this piece? Might she not respond, “I have to suffer all of this, just so you can feel at home with your hair?”
Something about this passage had struck me as somehow … off. But what? The obvious answer would be that—as is easily Googleable—I don’t share Robin’s politics regarding Israel, but none of his other posts on the topic had that effect. Indeed, I’ve sympathized, if not agreed, with similar arguments about the relative severity of contemporary Western anti-Semitism and Palestinian suffering. And his main point—that a Jewish state in Palestine comes at the cost of the land’s preexisting inhabitants—is one I agree with, and that I think all Zionists would do well to reckon with.
What bothered me was that Robin seemed to me to be taking an article that was about one topic and making it about something tangentially related at best. It also seemed as if he was attributing ideological beliefs to the author. In the essay, Shokin says nothing about how she’d resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I couldn’t figure out how Robin came to the following conclusion:
Shokin’s piece is a microcosm: its adolescent sense that my problems are the only problems that matter in this world sound all too much like Zionist arguments for a Jewish homeland. Not Zionist arguments at their weakest, but Zionist arguments at their strongest.
What, I wanted to know, were Shokin’s “Zionist arguments”? When I brought up this article with him, Robin pointed me to the Crooked Timber thread. (“Jewfros” appears there; on Jacobin; and on his personal blog, making it ambiguous whether one should refer to it as an article or a post.) Crooked Timber readers had, it turns out, expressed many of the same reservations. Where, exactly, had Shokin expressed support for Israel’s policies? While I regretted having not found this thread prior to that interview, conveniently enough, Robin himself entered the fray. Between discussing the piece with Robin and reading his comments in the threads at CoreyRobin.com (43 comments total, of which six are from Robin) and Crooked Timber (204 comments; 24 from Robin), I had a better sense of where he was coming from. He was saying that Shokin can’t have her hair revelation in Israel without, well, Israel. As he puts it, “Having grown up in this Zionist milieu myself, I’m all too familiar with how much we American Jews are/were encouraged to think of our deepest identities in terms of Israel. So much so that when you talk about Israel, it seems like you’re not talking about politics at all; you’re just exploring what it is to be human.” He’s saying—tricky point—that it’s not right to subjugate an entire people just so that you can feel comfortable with your hair texture.
The writing that’s most accessible—and most likely to spark outrage—is what gets shared.
I asked Robin what his vision of a Jewish liberation without Zionism might look like. If supporting the continued existence of a Jewish state in Palestine isn’t an appropriate response, what is? “Be the pariah!” he advised, citing Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism. “What’s so bad about that?” He added that Jews in Shokin’s situation shouldn’t “look for a kind of safe enclave.” If the feeling of difference is so “acute,” then the answer can’t be displacing another population. “There is something in our history that says, ‘Don’t do that.’ ” Later, by email, he clarified that he was only referring to Jews in places like the United States: “I think there’s a difference between that kind of feeling of alienation and marginalization and being the victim of persecution, as some Jews elsewhere are.”
When discussing his Chappaqua upbringing, Robin had mentioned that “We Are the World” was, for a time, the song of the moment, but also the attitude of a community that could be quite parochial, where others viewed being rich and white as the default and couldn’t imagine that others elsewhere were otherwise. His objections to Shokin’s piece point to this same discomfort with the parochial. This, in turn, makes me think that my own reason for being a Zionist comes out of a sense that Jews have as much right as anyone else to be parochial, and to want to fit in, and that this could well be where my fundamental political disagreement with Robin lies. Zionism may not have much to offer Jews who grew up in the suburbs feeling somehow different from their classmates. But most people—male and female, Jewish and gentile—are conventional. Nothing about being born Jewish makes someone innately cut out for wearing frizz with pride in a sea of Marcia Brady hair. All of which is to say that Robin may have me convinced, after all, that Shokin’s piece makes a Zionist argument.
The idea that there ought to be a divide between academics and public intellectuals seems, at its face, quite silly, if not altogether incomprehensible for those outside academia. If you have an important argument that connects Burke and Palin, and making it requires citing Dinesh D’Souza and Joseph de Maistre, why not make it? Yet the notion starts to look truly absurd when one considers the financial viability of being an unaffiliated intellectual—which is, ironically, where Steven Salaita now finds himself.
The flaw of the hybrid model, though, is that with fame comes misrepresentation. The writing that ends up reaching the greatest audience isn’t necessarily a thinker’s strongest work. This has always been true, but it is magnified by social media, as the Salaita case demonstrates. The writing that’s most accessible—and most likely to spark outrage—is what gets shared. That which explores the nuance of Hobbes does not. In the context of Robin’s written and in-person explanations, and his broader oeuvre, “Jewfros in Palestine” makes sense. As a stand-alone document, it inspires a less generous assessment.
It’s no accident that Robin, who seeks to model that form of hybrid intellectual identity, has made Salaita his cause. Some, such as Tablet magazine’s Liel Leibovitz, have questioned Salaita’s scholarship. Columbia professor and longtime left-wing activist (and Tablet columnist) Todd Gitlin, who admits that he has only read about Salaita’s books, told me over the phone, “I am unpersuaded that his scholarly merit for the position he was hired for has been demonstrated.” Robin called it “disingenuous” to look at Salaita’s books, when it’s not out of any genuine interest in finding out what’s in them, and he wasn’t fired for the books. This seems a fair point—Salaita’s work was evidently sufficient for two different tenure committees. Gitlin, however, also pointed me to another piece on the scholarship, by Diana Muir Appelbaum. Unlike Leibovitz, who “set out to make the acquaintance not of Steven Salaita, composer of vile and violent Tweets, but of Steven Salaita the scholar,” Appelbaum prefaces her close reading with an assertion that there’s no strict line between Tweets and scholarship:
Although I will not address Salaita’s tweets in this essay, I note that it is legitimate for hiring committees to do so. This is because Salaita does not tweet about movies or gardening. He tweets as a scholarly expert. His Twitter profile reads: ‘Palestine. Native America. BDS. Decolonization. Indigenous Studies. Author of six books, most recently Israel’s Dead Soul.’ When scholars tweet on their core fields as scholarly experts, tweeting becomes part of their scholarly persona, and it is legitimate for hiring committees to view the tweets as part of a scholar’s work; a lesser part—unreviewed and often impulsive, but part of a scholar’s public life and work nonetheless.
The intellectual field Robin seeks to create isn’t just one in which scholars can Tweet without risking their jobs. It’s one in which social-media postings themselves are a contribution to an oeuvre. This points to questions that are only going to keep confronting social-media-age thinkers: If a blog post can contribute to scholarship, why can’t a Tweet detract from the same? And if a scholar presents his or her ideas in an accessible, available manner, what’s to stop those outside academia from weighing in on their suitability for whichever job? Robin walks a delicate line, insisting that blog-work is part of his intellectual output but not particularly relishing when an individual post is held under a microscope. But the confidence and grace with which he negotiates these challenges suggests there may be no one better-suited to the task of the moment.
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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer living in Toronto.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer living in Toronto.