Eyeless on Gaza

By Dr. Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at John Hopkins.

Denial of civil liberties, accompanied by punishment for anybody who exposes those violations, has become commonplace in contemporary America. Yet, nothing that the nation has experienced – and that the more discerning protest – prepared us for the grotesque spectacle on display in the brutal suppression of free speech on university campuses. What we witness is the iron fist of autocracy employed to intimidate, to hurt, to deter those who would question – however peaceably – the right of the powers-that-be to impose their confected version of the truth on the public. Moreover, it is grounded on an arbitrary assumption of power having no basis in law or customary practice.

I.

Two singular features of this situation focus our attention. First, there is the stunning near unanimity of agreement by all segments of society’s elites on the rightness of the ruling narrative – and on the actions they take to enforce it. That is to say: 1) casting the issue as the dangerous radicalization of students by nefarious forces; 2) smearing demonstrators as ‘anti-Semites’ – despite the large numbers of Jewish participants; 3) blanking out any reference to the cause and motivations of the protest: Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians; and 4) the need to crack down hard on these seditious students – physically by rioting police, and administratively by summary expulsions and suspensions without a semblance of due process.

These assertions emanate from the mouths of elected officials, police commissioners, media personalities, pundits and – most distressing – University Presidents as well as Boards of Regents/Trustees. The single exception to this phalanx of elite solidarity is the untypical readiness of professors to side with their students – standing against higher university authorities at the manifest risk of retaliation. This is a break from what has become habitual deference to Presidents, Provosts and Board members. Too, it is a departure from the previous abstention from addressing the most serious and consequential issues – be it serial futile wars of choice, or mass surveillance by federal and local authorities, or the takeover of the national economy by rent extracting predatory finance. There is plausible reason to believe that the readiness of those who run today’s university to act autocratically owes to the latitude they thereby have been accorded. The superego rooted in a sense of academic community has dissolved along with a sense of accountability. Hence, they are emboldened to act arbitrarily without regard to traditional academic norms.

Among members of Congress, we see raucous petitions of condemnation and fiery calls for severe punishment against demonstrators, their sympathizers and anyone else who might voice opposition to Israel’s actions (e.g. justices of the Internation Criminal Court in The Hague). Only one Senator, Bernie Sanders, has had the courage and conviction to denounce this rabid assault on American democracy and civil liberties – however belatedly. The number of vocal critics in the House of Representatives can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Second is the absence of any overt, tangible national interest at stake. This is not Vietnam that could be rationalized in terms of the Cold War. Nothing happening in Palestine/Israel poses the slightest threat to the security of the United States. There is no cherished principle that we feel obligated to uphold; quite the opposite, the United States itself is an accomplice to gross crimes against humanity. Notably, President Joe Biden has paved the way for both the protests and the savage crackdown, for which he is acting as cheerleader, by failing to offer any reasonable excuse for making America a party to genocide and by slandering critics with a string of outlandish lies.

II.

The crude vilification of students coming from all quarters calls out for explanation. So, too, the relishing of their physical abuses. These are not normal behaviors – in both senses of the word. This phenomenon is all the more stunning for the lack of a reasonable justification. The protestors invariably were peaceful, there was no damage to property, no threats to persons, to obstruction to the normal workings of the universities. The couple of exceptions that involved sit-ups were prompted by the authorities’ quick resort to severe penalties. Moreover, the students have been acting in accordance with the vaunted principles of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In a cause of humanistic concern for others free of any self-interest.

Part of the explanation lies in those acts of moral conscience themselves. For both selflessness and empathy with distant victims of abuse are traits foreign to most of the nation’s power holders. The juxtaposition exposes the crassness of ruling elites and infuriates them. Infuriates because there lingers just enough feelings rooted in a vague sense of common humanity to prick repressed conscience and to abrade their self-esteem.

An even more important element is the growing attraction to holders of high office of autocratic attitudes and methods. Not just the trappings of power but its arbitrary exercise. That impulse is companion to, and requisite for controlling whomever or whatever might challenge that presumption. The increasingly common resort to diktats by authorities is a notable feature of contemporary American society – in all spheres. So commonplace as to be widely accepted as the norm. We experience it in organizations public and private – ranging from the Oval Office through state governments down to elite universities, charitable NGOs and foundations. Of course, this attitude/conduct long has been standard across the business world. In this era of impunity, accountability is a pale, sometimes thing. A general condition of social nihilism entices and emboldens the willful who crave arbitrary power for its own sake – and/or, those who exploit the opportunity to use illicit means to reach predefined objectives.

III.

In the case that we are examining in this essay, a variety of actors moved swiftly to turn the student demonstrations to their advantage. Foremost among them were the avowed Zionists. That heteroclite grouping was galvanized by the mission to support Israel’s onslaught against the Palestinians in the cause of creating a Greater Israel ‘from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea’ as is proclaimed in the charter of the Likud Party. At the very top were Joe Biden along with senior officials like Anthony Blinken; Congress members who either strongly identified with the Jewish state or were long indebted to AIPEC for campaign funding; owners, publishers and editors in the key media outlets; and leaders of Evangelical churches that see in the return of the Jews to the Holy Land a sure sign that the Day of Judgment was on the horizon. Together, since October 7, they had constructed a narrative that cast Israel as the unalloyed ‘good guy’ who was the victim of Hamas’ unprovoked terrorist crimes. It became pervasive and iron clad. Deviations from that line were stigmatized as anti-Semitic and repressed. Hence, the upwelling of student protesters was slotted into the narrative as representing an intolerable rejection of that script by Israel’s enemies. Harsh measures naturally followed.

The endorsement of harsh measures was at once implicit and explicit. Rhetoric from the White House set the tone. It enabled MAGA Republicans in Congress to drive their own campaign to denigrate the Democrats by slinging the electoral albatross of ‘woke’ activism across their shoulders as part of their plan to channel the emotions of the pro-Israel forces to favor themselves as Israel’s true defenders – ‘holier than the Pope.’ Furthermore, the ensuing maelstrom created by contenders for the role of exorcist-in-chief of the youthful heresy prompted sociopaths of multiple stripes to jump into the fray. There we find the militarized riot policy playing out their fantasies of cracking heads in Fallujah or Khandahar (a fair number of whom were in fact veterans of those locales); the End-of-Times fanatics in tense expectation of Armaggedon in the Holy Land; the militant agitators for Cold War II who fused a cartoon image of an innocent democratic Israel with a brave Ukraine heroically resisting the Axis of Evil II represented by Iran, Russia and China.

The most telling incident occurred at UCLA. There, a masked gang of Hebrew jihadis armed with clubs assaulted an encampment of peaceful students under cover of night. 15 of the victims were hospitalized. The pogrom went on for 3 hours. Campus police and LAPD cops were present; their only response was to slip into the shadows and to take in the show. None of the gang have been identified or apprehended. No police commander has been penalized or reprimanded.

This abbreviated taxonomy of the forces arrayed against the student protesters leaves out the many others in positions of influence who have participated in the psychodrama – persons who had neither passionate views about the protagonists ‘over there,’ nor an evident drive to gather power and (ab)use it. Their complicity can be understood by reference to two cardinal elements in their make-up and that of their institutions. Foremost is careerism – broadly conceived. Advancing upwards in status, monetary award and power is the paramount consideration among professional in every sphere of life. Accordingly, avoidance of rocking boats or being seen as anything but a team player is imperative. Conformism is the watchword. Those who fail to observe those admonitions tend to get weeded out early on. The ensuing behavior pattern of ‘go along to get ahead’ is pronounced, and readily observable, among journalists cum media personalities; aspiring think tankers; academics and, of course, the vast majority of politicos.

The second salient element is the instilled disposition to tolerate aberrant, self-interested behavior that circumvents rules, norms, conventions – and even laws. In short, they have been acculturated to the strong nihilistic/narcissistic tendencies of contemporary society. Let’s enumerate some of the events they have witnessed – and which inescapably shape attitudes as to what is permissible. 1) A succession of Presidents who have employed systematic deceit to embroil the country in failed, futile wars. None of whom have been held accountable or even moved to say ‘sorry.’ 2) Systematic surveillance of American citizens without warrant in overt violation of the 4th Amendment. 3) The granting to the Commander-In-Chief the authority to assassinate Americans abroad if they are judged to be threats to national security. 4) Institutionalized torture of ‘enemy combatants’ in violation of both international and national law. 5) The multiple criminal acts committed by Donald Trump – the most prominent of which would be pretty much ‘open-and-cases’ were the alleged perpetrator not a vindictive former President. 6) The unprecedented actions of federal courts (and some state courts) to hamstring judicial proceedings on the flimsiest and most spurious grounds. 7) The Attorney General of the United States shirking his sworn responsibility to enforce the laws against criminality without regard to position, status or standing. 8) Private companies who own social media sites mandated to censor persons and content (as guided by agencies of the federal government) in overt violation of the 1st amendment.

Should we be surprised these realities undermine the sense of civic responsibility and commitment to upholding institutional integrity among our elites across the span of American institutions? Moreover, we should bear in mind that our present twisted civic culture has crystallized over a period of 30 years or more. Thus, what we experience in post-constitutional/post-rules and norms America has come to appear natural. Fewer and fewer people have more than a dim awareness of anything different. For most, what they observe is taken as given – absent other reference points. This is not a matter of an old system of norms being replaced by a new set; rather, we are entering a world where there are NO norms.

IV.

Let’s examine how this has played out among university officials. Academic authorities include Presidents, Regents/Trustees, and state or local officeholders. One can discern three patterns of behavior: the fawn, the wolf, the headless chicken. Fawns are vulnerable, defensive, low in self-confidence and instinctively run and hide rather than fight. When targeted, they freeze; when ordered they respond obediently. The prime examples are the leaders of Harvard, Penn and MIT before the Star Chamber proceedings of the House Committee on Education. Savaged by belligerent demagogues who use the term “Ivy League” as an epithet, they melted. Figuratively speaking, they looked down at their feet, twisted their peasant caps in their hands and spoke with subdued deference. Absurd charges of anti-Semitism, of appeasing Hamas sympathizers, of failing to preserve order were flung at the trio. Neither civil Republicans nor Committee Democrats offered any succor. Not one of the Presidents confronted their accusers; none spoke forcefully about the ethos of a university; none had the pride expected of those who represent prestigious institutions. Instead, they fell back on the feeble talking points provided them by university lawyers who themselves gave primacy to accommodation of the inquisitors. So, the Presidents fumbled and stumbled and promised do better. The reaction to their performance was all accusatory and negative. They were indicted for not following the Zionist line as defined by the American government. Apologies followed. Harvard and Penn fired two of them.

The abject written apologies were not enough. Harvard’s Board of Governors and Penn’s Board of Trustees forced the two sacrificial lambs to walk the plank. The blades in their backs were pressed by AIPAC apparatus and a couple of billionaire donors. In each instance, one particular individual sallied forth to become the public face of outraged donors. The Harvard donor was Bill Ackman who relished his moment in the limelight to leverage his $40 million gift to extract a string of concessions from the university administration – themselves pressed by the Governors. Quite a performance in the light of Harvard’s $50 billion Endowment that grows by about $4 billion annually – ten times that given by the donor who, along with other donors, successfully held the university to ransom.

Together, the aforementioned individuals and institutions formed the wolf pack. Imposing, quick to strike and secure in their status as apex predators of the academic realm, they felt no compunction at eliminating anyone who they thought tarnished the reputation of their university or, even more intolerable, questioned by word or deed their authority. A similar spectacle has been on view on campuses across the country – with some small variations in the modalities. A sobering datum is that not a single university President, not a single Board, has forthrightly defended the integrity of their institutions, the principle of free speech that is at their core, or dared to condemn the police riots at Emory, at Colombia, at UCLA.

The one university President who did stand out was Columbia’s Dr. Mahmat Tallat ‘Manouche’ Shafik. She thrust herself forward as the ruthless Iron Lady able and willing to crush the subverters of good order – mental as well as physical. Her response was a torrent of ad hominem accusations directed at the protestors, a total ignoring of the multiform harassment of both demonstrators and Muslim students generally (including physical attacks by former IDF exchange students), immediate summary expulsions, and a summons to Mayor Eric Adams (himself a jackal posturing as a ‘wolf’) to send 1,000 cops to cleanse the campus. Columbia University, as of today, is shuttered under what amounts to martial law.

[This use of the term “wolf” is a libel of actual wolves. They are not mean-spirited in the sense connotated here. They hunt/fight only as required to survive. Strikingly, they show a keen sense of communal well-being. The pack ‘establishment’ knows that caring for the welfare of all its members – especially its young – is a requisite for avoiding extinction. In this respect, wolves demonstrate superior functional intelligence to humans.]

Mahmat Tallat, Baroness Shafik has an unusual provenance for a University President. She is a British-Egyptian baroness who built her career at the Bank of England, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The daughter of very wealthy landholders on the Nile, Shakin seems to view the student demonstrations as a sort of peasant revolt. She reacted accordingly – unhesitatingly using force in the form of NYPD police who, in riot gear and with guns drawn, ruthlessly broke up the students’ encampment, and beat and arrested over 100 of them. They were charged with “criminal trespassing” on their own campus.

In Chris Hedges words, “These administrators demand…..total obedience. Dissent. Freedom of expression. Critical thought. Moral outrage. These have no place in our corporate-indentured universities.”

President Shafik was not finished – there was yet another veil to drop for her full character to be exposed. As reported by a student journalist on a quiet Saturday last week:
“Columbia University president Minouche Shafik will skip the biggest ceremony for graduating seniors on campus next week….A note that went out to student at Columbia College — which is attended by more than half of the university’s undergraduate students — indicated that Shafik would not appear at “Class Day.” The Class Day celebrations typically feature student and keynote speakers, and are a chance for graduates to walk across the stage and shake hands with the dean and university president before they are formally conferred their degrees. Class Day is also a major opportunity for friends and family members to celebrate the completion of studies at the $90,000-per-year university.”

Shafik’s absence at the May 14 event was quietly announced via an addendum to a Class Day information email that was sent to students.

V.

The large majority of university authorities are not clearcut fawns or wolves – their moral DNA reveals mutated lineages from both. They are headless chickens. Their characteristic reaction was shock and fear at being confronted with a situation wherein they had neither the aptitude nor the experience nor the personality to understand what was going on – much less manage it. Initial paralysis quickly gave way to sporadic, impulse actions. Their leadership manuals admonished them to do something – whether or not it was part of a considered plan or strategy. Their standard action has been to call in the cops. That, at least, would clear the campus for graduation ceremonies, give the impression of a semblance of order returning, and made for better visuals once the debris and blood had been cleared from the encampments.

Talk to the protesting students? Out of the question. For university leaders had no idea what to say. Moral idealists? Standing up for a bunch of Arabs? No specific demands – like deeper discounts on football tickcts- that one could get a handle on? What motivates them?; I can’t figure out what’s in it for them. These people are like total aliens. Then, how could I expose myself to attacks accusing me of coddling terrorist lovers, anti-Semites, thugs? That could jeopardize my job and throw me back into the classroom and my stuffy, tiny department office.

The emblematic headless chicken is the President of USC. She staked out her claim to notoriety even before the protests began. The school’s graduation Valedictorian was slated to be a young Muslim American woman, Asna Tabassum, who majored in bio-medical engineering. When it was disclosed that her Twitter page included remarks spotlighting Palestinian grievances and condemning Israeli apartheid, a flurry of denunciation by the usual suspects was directed at the University; they demanded that Tabassum be barred from speaking as scheduled. President Carol Folt caved in by removing her from the program – along with other scheduled outside speakers. Thus purified, the ceremony went ahead. Her public letter to Tabassum stressed that USC had nothing against her personally, reiterated the school’s commitment to free speech and expressed confidence of her professional success in her future endeavors. Unfortunately, free speech had to take a sabbatical in the interests of public safety, i.e. troublemakers might interrupt the proceedings and cause turmoil. Later protest demonstrations were dealt with in the same feckless manner.”

Folt was censured, and asked to resign, by the faculty Senate. The mention of Asna Tabassum’s name during the graduation ceremony prompted loud applause. So what? It is doubtful that she lost any sleep over these rebukes. After all, when you hold high office in a large institution you have a responsibility to make hard decisions that force you to place its welfare ahead of everyday morality – isn’t that what Barack Obama told us in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?

To get perspective on these headless chickens, one must bear in mind that today’s university Presidents – along with the Boards that appoint them – have little engagement with broad educational issues. On national issues beyond the confines of the university they are a non-presence. The bulk of their time is spent raising money, buttering up alumni, pacifying hostile state legislatures, and oiling the gears of the ever-expanding bureaucratic machine that has overshadowed the groves of academe. Admittedly, there are occasional crises: a scandal in the athletic department, battles over transgender bathrooms and the like. That’s about it.

Conclusion

A sense of common humanity and the instinct to defend those vulnerable to willful abuse – however distant they may be – has reemerged. The spontaneous youth demonstrations of moral witness shows that the seed of political virtue somehow survived the 25-year ethical drought we have experienced. These green shoots are fragile, though. The campaign to weed them out will not relent. Indeed, efforts to sterilize the soil will be redoubled.

The wielders of arbitrary power are skillfully riding a wave of autocracy which has transformed American civic life. Formidable obstacles manned by hard, self-righteous people stand in the way of a rebirth of collective conscience. Unless they can be overcome, we may well see the further retreat from enlightened principles as governance of the people, by the people, for the people fades into the national memory book.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *