Friday, May 13, 2005

This is a blacklist, not just a "boycott"

As I have argued from the beginning of this affair, it is both foolish and inaccurate to simply accept the word "boycott" as a description of what the AUT is doing. Calling this an academic boycott, as if that's all it involves, is a form of ideological mystification (and, in some cases, self-deception)—at least, in terms of the normal 20th- and 21st-century meanings of the word "boycott." This is, above all, an academic blacklist, and it would be useful as well as truthful to say so.

(If there were any ambiguity about this at all—which there is not—the fact that individual Israeli academics are offered an exemption if they actively express satisfactory political views should make the reality clear to anyone.)

I put the matter as follows while corresponding about the MESA anti-blacklist statement with David Hirsh & Jon Pike, the two British academics who run the website "Engage" website.
I think one of the most important things about this excellent MESA statement—aside from the fact that it exists, which is already huge—is that it twice explicitly uses the word "blacklist" (as I do in my petition). I would advise you and everyone else to emphasize that word, too, now that MESA has publicly legitimated it. It cuts through the euphemisms of "boycott," and brings out the reality of the situation.
The term "boycott" is used to create a spurious mental association with apartheid-era South Africa, and to convey the impression that these measures are somehow targeting only institutions (not people). "Blacklist" should serve the useful purpose of reminding people of McCarthyism (to which the NY Academy of Sciences statement referred explicitly), which is the more accurate analogy, while making it clear this action targets individual academics & their academic freedom (& livelihoods).

Geertz long ago explained how all this works in "Ideology as a Cultural System," and Lakoff has been hammering home the same point more recently ... but it's something that every political & marketing consultant knows, too. That is, it's crucial to frame the issue your way and not let the other side frame it their way—and it helps if your way of framing it is also more accurate and illuminating, as I believe is the case when one calls this blacklist a blacklist.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S., February 2006:  Along similar lines, an excellent piece by Jon Pike on the Engage website, "The Myth of the Institutional Boycott," convincingly demolishes the pretense that this is somehow a purely institutional boycott that doesn't target any actual people. In reality, as opposed to disingenuous propaganda, the point of these measures is precisely to exclude Israeli academics from international academic and intellectual life. That's a blacklist. Pike accepts the word "boycott," which I think is unfortunate, but the substance of his analysis is cogent and correct.]