November 15, 2004

Saskia Sassen reveals high-handed habits, stifles discussion

I wish I could say that I was surprised by the crude conduct of, and fraudulent charges made by, University of Chicago sociology professor Saskia Sassen, my co-panelist at the November 10 debate, "Examining National Identity: Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Future of the Middle East," held on campus at International House and sponsored by the Student Committee on the Middle East. Unfortunately, storming off the stage in the middle of a panel discussion, subsequently attacking a co-panelist only after the visitor from New York had returned home and was no longer present to defend herself, and publicly denouncing the student organizers who had in fact bent over backwards to be upfront and fair in their organization and administration of the debate, displays the high-handed and authoritarian habits that have become second nature for many faculty on campuses across the country.

According to a November 12 story in the Maroon ("Frustrated by Mid East discourse, Sassen storms from panel lecture"), Professor Sassen claimed to have been hoodwinked: "I thought the panel would offer a chance to explore, to remap the situation. But when one of the speakers basically makes a completely unilateral presentation reciting the litany of U.N. resolutions that went against Israel, without ever bringing in a reflection about the complexity of the matter, we are in trouble." In fact, the panel consisted of Professor Sassen, who spoke on behalf of transnationalism, or principles and forms of government that transcend the nation state; myself, discussing nationalism and how Israel could be both a liberal democracy and Jewish state; Professor Ann Bayefsky (to whom Professor Sassen sneeringly refers) of Columbia University Law School, who analyzed the double standard the U.N. has applied to Israel for decades; and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University geneticist, who sought to equate Zionism with Nazism, racism and apartheid.

In her prepared remarks, which opened the session, Professor Sassen emphasized that she brought no special expertise to that part of the panel discussion devoted in particular to the Middle East. Yet this did not stop Professor Sassen, before she left the panel in a huff, from taking a strong stand on Israel. After listening to Professor Bayefsky recount the many and varied ways that the U.N. had singled out Israel among all the nations of the world for special condemnation and Professor Qumsiyeh single out Israel as indistinguishable from one of the most heinous regimes in human history, Professor Sassen knew which opinion needed to be denounced.

Offered the first opportunity to respond to fellow panelists, she could only bring herself to wax indignant about one side of the vast divide on the panel: "We cannot make any headway even in our academic discussion if we talk about the Israeli government as a pure victim the way two of the speakers explicitly or implicitly did," intoned Professor Sassen. "We need to recognize that the Israeli state has operated with excess power in a situation of extreme asymmetry." Given the choice, Professor Sassen explicitly upbraided the calm, lucid analyst of U.N. hypocrisy toward Israel (and me implicitly), and sided with the hate-mongering purveyor of the monstrous falsehood that Israel was in principle no different from the regime that murdered six million Jews for no other reason than that they were Jewish. In her interview with the Maroon, Professor Sassen suggests that it was the sterility of the argument on both sides that provoked her departure. Yet those who were there did not hear her express criticism of Professor Qumsiyeh's obscene comparison of Israel and the Nazi regime, but only of Professor Bayefsky's defense of Israel from the charges that it was a racist and apartheid state.

Moreover, by walking out on the panel midway through the event "after she had spoken for a second time but before she could be challenged" Professor Sassen showed that she held her own opinions to be beyond criticism and regarded her opponents' opinions as unworthy of serious debate. Professor Sassen's performance was more than unprofessional. It was rude to the organizers, to the audience, and to her fellow panelists.

Taking her conduct and comments together, one is led to conclude that Professor Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers; that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence ad arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes; and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.

I am heartened that members of Student Committee for the Middle East at the University of Chicago understand that the free and robust exchange of ideas is at the heart of the liberal university. I trust that those students will hold their ground and resist the illiberal forces on campus that seek to demonize difference of opinion. I realize the courage that this calls for from students when it is members of the faculty who are fomenting the flames of intolerance.