Author Archives: Richard Landes

Salem on the Thames: What Connecticut College’s Andrew Pessin Affair Teaches Us.

Salem on the Thames:

What Connecticut College’s Andrew Pessin Affair Teaches Us.

[A briefer version of this article has been published at American Interest.]

Academics like to think of themselves as autonomous thinkers. Academia – literally the protected realm of free speech – give professors enormous privileges, not only the right to speak their minds, but also not to lose their livelihood by displeasing those more powerful. Few members of even developed democracies enjoy the exceptional privileges of freedom given to academics: to speak out, dissent, criticize, to “speak truth to power” with relative impunity. Try getting such individuated folks to all toe one line? Try herding cats.

The very fact that civil polities treasure such safe spaces for free speech, attests to their progressive bona fides. Historically, power elites suffocate dissent; yet modern democracies invest heavily in a free academy. Especially in our times, when new social networks can turn ominously feral, one might hope that academics and their institutions, especially small face-to-face communities, could return that investment and resist such anonymous, predatory, crowd behavior.

The Pessin Affair, Connecticut College Spring Semester 2015

And yet, this is precisely what appears to have happened this last semester at Connecticut College where, for two months, a controversy turned campus life upside down. Active participants saw it as a time of mobilization, deepening and enlarging the inclusively excellent community, a revolutionary time of courage, commitment and democratic reform. Others, mostly outsiders and (rare) internal critics, saw it differently: Pessin was a scapegoat sacrifice. And sure enough, the incident begs out for a Girardian analysis of the sacred violence at the origin of all primitive religious solidarity. Kill an arbitrary, surrogate victim, a scapegoat, and create solidarity among the guilty survivor-participants. Of course, being a post-modern sacrifice, there was no blood.

For a Smile: Amazing Pics

Every once in a while we just need something like this. Enjoy! HT: Funpic and Fropki.

The Pessin Affair and Rhino-Peacocks: The Pre-modern Rhino Hide on the Post-Modern Campus

In a previous post from 2010, I proposed the term Peacock-Rhinos to describe a tendency on the “left” of people like Judge Richard Goldstone and members of the international “human rights” organizations,  who thought of themselves as truly good, caring, empathic people who nonetheless had grown the hide of the Rhinoceros that Ionesco so devastatingly describes among those who gave in to fascism’s collective appeal.

The Pessin Affair and Peacock-Rhinos

In preparing some essays on the Pessin Affair, I wanted to use the term Peacock-Rhino to describe the group who attacked Pessin by claiming deep personal pain even trauma at reading his Facebook post. In rereading the post where I first proposed the term, I realize the phenomenon, best exemplified by the star of this particular staged emergency, Lamiya Khandaker, varies considerably from that of Goldstone. What I emphasized in an earlier post was the rhinos’ hide, their thick skin, their imperviousness to empirical reality and reasoned argument, their willingness to run over anything that gets in their way. But in the Pessin Affair, this trait exists alongside another, seemingly contradictory one – an exquisitely thin skin.

At least one species of Peacock Rhinos has very thin skins, and almost anything will set off deeply-felt responses. In modern terminology, they have very bad anger management skills. An affront can trigger a violent tirade; words can ever harm them. In some cases, this is true of people who are simply rhinos, like the Jihadis who go bonkers at the very sight of a picture of Muhammad, no matter how anodine and slaughter blasphemers in response. In 2006, for example, at false news that the Pope had called Islam inherently violent – apparently an unbearable insult to the faithful – set thousands of Muslims the world over to rioting in protests that killed dozens of people. Rather than laugh at the childish absurdity of people violently objecting to being called violent, most Western commentators, both journalistic and political, pressured the pope to apologize.

As there, so in many other places, the guardians of the Western public sphere call for systemic placation. To crudely summarize the prevailing attitude one finds among not just diplomats but journalists and policy advisors: Don’t piss them off. As a result of this pervasive placation of cries of injury, those thin-skinned folks who bruise easily and have problems with anger management get to lead with their glass chin. If you will, they manage an elaborate intimidation/protection racket, carried out in the name of sensitivity. The widespread belief that drawing pictures of Muhammad is somehow “punching down” and in bad taste because it hurts the feelings of over a billion Muslims illustrates the dynamic.

At Connecticut College, however, we find a special breed of Peacock Rhino. There the activist students used this aggressive sensitivity to maximum effect by expressing it as a vulnerability. Everywhere in this affair, one hears of the wounded, anxious, unsafe, deeply hurt, students, whose trauma at encountering Pessin’s Facebook post, triggered and sustained the entire episode. The gaping wound their deliberate misreading of his piece provoked, provided the occasion and sustenance of revolutionary time.

Radical Thoughts on Fighting BDS

I was just on a panel at the IDC Herzliya Conference about BDS and Europe. [My remarks made to the panel treated BDS as a cogwar campaign to destroy Israel, one of the most coveted desires of the apocalyptic millennial set (and many other Arabs and Muslims, alas).]

This is the second such discussion I’ve been in (the previous one, on Wednesday past is here in French), and below are some of the thoughts they both have inspired.

If Others Think It’s Our Fault, It Is.

People who identify themselves as “left” consistently pooh-pooh the problem on the one hand, and then turn around to say, “and if we [Israel] weren’t so bad, if our behavior didn’t seem so close to South African apartheid, then we wouldn’t be having these problems.” So on the one hand, “it’s not a big deal,” and on the other hand, “it’s our fault.”

Of course what they mean by “our fault,” is not their fault, but the “right’s” fault – Bibi, Hotovely, Bennett, the settlements, the occupation, and any other Israeli action that provokes anger among outsiders, whether they be Arab or Western. “As long as the ‘right’ keeps talking and acting the way it does, it’s impossible to win the fight against BDS. If we uprooted the settlements, then the BDS advocates wouldn’t find so sympathetic an audience.” To paraphrase Roland Freudenstein, a foreign panelist, most sympathetic to Israel, “explain and defend everything you do, including the wall, including the occupation. But building settlements?!? Seriously, Settlements?!”

As for disagreements with figures like Obama and Kerry, their perception, even if false, trumps our sense of reality. One Israeli panelist at the IDC actually dismissed the Levy Commission’s ruling on the legality of the settlements, by invoking Ban Ki Moon, “certainly no anti-Semite” (and also, no lawyer). The invocation of Moon was not about legal reasoning, but about international perception. If that’s the way the world thinks, don’t fight it. If the world sees the settlements as an illegal move that prevents peace, then it’s up to Israel to bend. As one of my (former) colleagues once said to me during the early years of the intifada, “I support Israel, but Sharon! ShaRON!.”

The situation, as I see it, is the opposite. It’s not the right that’s responsible for the loss to BDS, but the progressive left, which should have won this particular battle against the demonization of Israel handily. Indeed, the attitude of submission that it argues we Israelis should take – if the “vast majority” (apparently a favorite meme in more than one place) believes we shouldn’t have settlements, then so be it – is the reason why progressives have folded in the face of aggressive Islamist demands. 

Student Email to Pessin Describes SGA Meeting of March 26

In this student email to Pessin, a member of the Student Government Association describes how the body was pressured into throwing out procedure and rushing through a condemnation of Pessin. Later, Aparna Gopalian, editor of opinion page of College Voice and member of the SGA, reflected on how successfully they bent that body to their activist will.

Student Account of GSA, March 26

Richard Landes, “Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel” March 30, 2015

Richard Landes,“Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel…” from ISGAP on Vimeo.

Seminar Series:
Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective

“Antisemitism’s Fatal Attraction: The Global Progressive Left, the Jihadi Right And Israel as the 21st Century Antichrist”

Richard Landes
Department of History,
Boston University

Monday, March 30, 2015, 5:30PM
ISGAP Center, 3rd Floor

Nuggets from the Pessin Affair: For Inclusiveness against Essentializing

As those following this blog know, I’ve been uploading documents on the Pessin Affair, a remarkable and terrifying moment when Connecticut College became Salem on the Thames.

As I sift through the evidence, the arguments employed by faculty when discussing the issue offer interesting insights into the kind of discourses that allowed the public sphere in the college be seized by cognitive Jihadis, driving an entire university community, with only the dimmest awareness of what they were doing, to conduct a human sacrifice in the name of inclusivity. Post modern shades of Rene Girard’s theory of sacrifice.

One of the memes much in use is that of the “equality of all cultures.” What this allegedly multi-cultural sentiment actually means in practice, however, is a dogmatic projection of a Western culture which has, by and large, renounced violence, encouraged individuality and diversity, and chosen to resolve disputes through public discussion. Combined with “moral equivalence,” this notion of cultural equality permits critics to equate acts that have vastly different moral and cultural settings and meanings.

This projection, which had something of a dogmatic sanctity to it, operated on two critical planes during the Pessin episode, granting to the “hurt students” all respect and concern for their feelings, despite the fact that they tendentiously interpreted Pessin’s remarks, and were “coming from a place” of war and not peace.

On a second plane, it operated to equate Israeli/Jewish culture and Palestinian/Muslim. Following up on comments outlining the wide range of beliefs and attitudes within the variegated Jewish community (i.e., opening up a place for Jewish colleagues to dissent from Pessin’s tone and opinions), a colleague insisted that everyone also should acknowledge the same for

… the much larger populations of Arab and non-Arab Muslims and Arab Christians worldwide who are nearly as diverse in their political and religious affiliations as culture itself. We must take care not to conflate these groups or essentialize them in our social / political / religious discourse.

Would this were true. On the contrary, the near-total homogeneity of the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet when it comes to the political issue of Israel is nothing short of astonishing. There is vastly more variety of political opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict, openly expressed, in .2% of the global population (12 million Jews), than there is in almost 20% of the global population (1.6 billion Muslims) about Israel. If this astonishing uniformity of opinion is a form of “essentializing,” then Muslims essentialize themselves by peer pressure and policing the narrow borders of dissent with violence, both state- and sect- driven.

Ironically, this professor’s advice not to conflate or essentialize contradicts his empirical assertions: he conflates Muslim and Jewish culture as “equally diverse in political matters,” and thus fails to understand the very dynamics that make this  conflict so adamantine.

Remarks at Herzliya Conference 2015: BDS, Europe, and Jihadi Cogwar

BDS as a Cognitive War Campaign of Global Jihad

I wish to focus today on BDS as a Cognitive War campaign of Global Jihad, more specifically, since it’s the topic of our panel, a campaign for the conquest of Europe for Islam. My remarks, therefore, do not refer to all Muslims or to Islam as a whole, but on a particular salvific (i.e. millennial) movement within Islam for world conquest, one best called Global Jihad. In the Jihadi strategy for Islamizing the world, Israel plays a key role, both strategically and practically. To grasp its significance, however, one must view this from the perspective of their cognitive war against infidels. The goal of cogwar is for a weaker combatant to defeat a much stronger enemy by getting him not to use his superior strength. Historically, from the Maccabees to the Vietcong, most cogwar has been defensive, striving to kick out invaders. Today, Global Jihad conducts an imperialist cogwar designed to get the West not to resist an invasion of its own culture. The following is a brief analysis of Global Jihad’s cogwar strategy with particular attention to the role of BDS in its European theater of war.

Strategically speaking, the elimination of Israel constitutes the primary initial military goal for global jihad. Israel represents the most painful slap in the face of Arab and Muslim honor, a global humiliation, a Naqba, the symbol of Arab and Muslim impotence in the modern age. Destroying Israel would whiten the Arab world’s blackened face and restore its honor, its manhood. And with Jerusalem finally, again, in Muslim hands, the apocalyptic process of world redemption will advance. No single event would more powerfully drive Muslim faithful to join the apocalyptic Jihad for world conquest, than the fall of Israel. By the same logic, nothing would be more counter-indicated for the West than to support the Jihadi campaign to destroy Israel.

And yet that is precisely what has happened over the first 15 years of the 21st century in two major theatres of war: Israel, and Western democracies (primarily Europe). On the Israeli front, Palestinian Jihadis deliberately provoke IDF reactions that inevitably hurt Palestinian civilians, and then count on the MSNM to blame Israel for the Palestinian suffering whose images they run 24/7. Fired by the lethal narratives fed them as news by journalists and NGOs, including self-accusing Jewish and Israeli ones, world outrage forces Israel to withdraw, sparing the Jihadis who then rearm.

Some Recent Videos of Richard Landes

 

 

At an Anti-BDS Conference at University of Baltimore Law School organized by SPME, April 27, 2015:

 

At BU Conference on Apocalyptic Jihad, May 4, 2015:

 

 

Sur I24 News (français): Débat sur le BDS avec Marius Schattner, Dror Even Sapir, et moi. Hôte: Jean-Charles Banoun.

Pessin Archive: Pessin’s Remarks on College Panel about Charlie Hebdo Attacks, January 22, 2015

The following are the comments Pessin made at a panel on January 22, on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris at the beginning of  the month. It initiated a series of email exchanges with Lamiya Khandaker in February, which preceded the full-fledged assault in March.

Notes for Hebdo comments 1/22/15

Of the many issues, questions, problems in play here, one particularly strikes me:

“moral relativism” … in particular, the profound moral differences in play between distinct cultures/subcultures …

–in the academic bubble we live in we are firm believers in tolerance and diversity … which leads to a strong default inclination toward a kind of relativism — different societies and cultures and religions are all equally valuable, equally legitimate, equally ‘correct’ in their own way — at the very least we are in no justified position to critique their differences … it’s imperialistic, colonialistic, to impose our values on other cultures … shades of European imperialism, colonialism, conquest, domination etc….

–the fascinating irony of course is that these ideas of tolerance, diversity, individual liberties etc. are profoundly European ideas in the first place …

–helping to support these ideas is that it can be very difficult to distinguish “cultural” differences from “moral” differences … of COURSE differences in dress, and language, and cuisine, and customs, etc. should be tolerated, celebrated … so that bleeds over into tolerating/celebrating the diversity of practices that begin spilling into moral practices — the role/status of women, FGM, the role/status of gays, freedoms of the individual (speech, assembly, religion) etc….

–and it is instances like Hebdo which show just profoundly problematic this strongly relativistic attitude is … which reveal just how profoundly different are the value systems in play …

–for most of “us,” OF COURSE Hebdo had the right to satirize religion (not just islam but pretty nasty toward Christianity and Judaism too) … perhaps we find it offensive, in bad taste, maybe even “wrong” in some sense — but in no sense deserving of execution

–but for many of “them” (leaving that undefined!) OF COURSE Hebdo did not have that right, and WAS deserving of execution …. (demonstrations all over the world AGAINST Hebdo, incl riots and deaths against Hebdo … Nigeria (burning churches), Pakistan, Gaza…) ….

–tho I am very skeptical of sharp black/white distinctions, of us/them distinctions — they’re generally not accurate and not helpful to productive discussion — I use the distinction here only to demarcate a strong moral dividing point — either you condemn the Hebdo shootings simpliciter or you don’t … events like this force you finally to make a choice … and I’m using ‘us’ to indicate the former and ‘them’ to indicate the latter, regardless of race/ethnicity/religion etc.

–[and note I’m not even talking about the shooting of the Jews here — separate issue(s) — just focusing on the Hebdo]

–it’s easy to be tolerant and celebrate the diverse practices when “they” are “over there” “elsewhere” — but the world is getting smaller, now they are right “here” … so what can and should you do?

–can you “tolerate” those who don’t want to tolerate you?

–can you “coexist” with people who want to kill you?

–how is it possible to affirm your commitment to “individual liberty, freedom, diversity” when “sub-cultures” within your culture want to overthrow you and your values?

–this also shows up “between” cultures — eg how do states go to war justly, morally (by their own standards) against non-state entities that don’t play by the same rules (eg re protecting civilians) …

–I have no answers, to either the theoretical or practical problems raised here … but I do suspect one thing, regrettably, in both domains — that whatever the answer is, it might well involve re-examining and articulating far more precisely the nature and limits of the key notions (liberty freedom diversity tolerance) we celebrate …. Or to articulate it more precisely: the great challenge for societies committed to liberal democratic values is how to maintain those values, to maximize those values, even toward those who don’t share those values, who are so opposed to those values that they attack them with violence ….

Pessin Affair: Faculty Dissent, Jeff Strabone, March 31, 2015

Published with permission of author.

From: Jeff Strabone <[email protected]>

Date: Tue, Mar 31, 2015 at 9:25 AM

Subject: [faculty] why I have not signed

To: faculty <[email protected]>

Dear Colleagues,

Last night I received an e-mail message from a student who was outraged that I did not sign my department’s recent statement. The student then offered to “help facilitate” my class for me.

I have declined to sign my department’s statement for a number of reasons, some of which have already been articulated by other colleagues. I will therefore explain just one: declaring that you’re not a racist and thinking that you can beat or disprove racism by signing an oath or making a declaration are, to my way of thinking, fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of racism. Most racists (or, more helpfully, people who contribute to racism) don’t think they’re racists. There is no cost or sacrifice required to sign such a statement. It is, in short, too easy to sign a statement and think one’s work is done.

Pessin Archive: Using Saïd and Finkelstein to Shed Light on Pessin Affair

Demystifying Media Bias Surrounding Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Discourses

In light of recent events on this campus as well as articles in the media, we find it necessary to highlight a number of misconceptions about Islam and anti-Semitism. We would like to dispel the notion that criticizing the Israeli government or military amounts to a condemnation of Judaism or Jewish people (just as a critique of Saudi Arabian state is not automatically anti-Islam or anti-Arab).

Edward Said’s seminal work on orientalism serves as our first point of reference. Said asserts that Western conceptions of the Middle East do not arise from an objective analysis of the region, but rather are viewed through a lens that in effect distorts reality. Orientalism propagates a false historical narrative through its creation of an “ideal other.” Said’s conception of American Orientalism is particularly relevant to our analysis of current campus events and to the larger narrative of Islamophobia. The history of orientalism in Europe differs from the American narrative, as the United States never possessed colonies in the Middle East. As a result, America’s brand of orientalism is entirely unique, defined and politicized by its relationship with Israel, a Western democracy.

Along the same vein, Said remarks that Israel regards the entirety of the Arab world as its principal enemy. Viewed through this framework, the Palestinian desire for national determination is seen as a disturbance to Israeli security. Resultantly, Palestinians and pro-Palestinian Arabs are seen as irrational, violent and inclined toward terrorism. This very fact helps explain the sheer magnitude of Islamophobia on both this campus and in the United States in general. Similarly, these massive generalizations conflate a number of distinct categories, as many individuals believe all Arabs are Muslims, and these two categories are regularly conflated with violent terrorists. 

The conception of the “dangerous Arab terrorist” is also manifested in the portrayal of the Middle East in Western media. In emphasizing the figure of the dangerous Arab terrorist, the media propagates the false presumption that all Arabs are a threat to Western interests. This tendency is visible in the Washington Post article published about the current situation on our campus. David Bernstein, author of the article and also a Professor of Law at George Mason University, singles out a student who wears the hijab as the sole voice on campus who spoke out against Pessin’s anti-Palestinian post, ignoring the numerous other members of the Connecticut College community who were alarmed by it. Our own Hillel House issued a statement on March 25th as a result of the Facebook post stating “We do not condone racist speech or actions toward any group under any circumstance.” Bernstein also quickly conflated criticism of the post with anti-Semitism itself, as if a critique of the Israeli government was itself anti-Semitic. Finally, his thinking ignored the fact that many Jews themselves are critical of the Israeli government as are other citizens of the United States. Singling out the most visible Muslim woman on campus as the sole voice was permissible precisely because of the Islamophobic discourse in the media and the broader public. The media’s tendency to generalize and broadcast false assumptions detracts immensely from a clear-headed discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.     

With these ideas in mind, it is imperative to turn now to Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist and author of Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Finkelstein argues that charges of anti-Semitism, identical to the accusation David Bernstein made in The Washington Post, are essentially misuses of anti-Semitism that serve to delegitimize valid criticisms against the Israeli state. In other words, criticisms against Israel as a state are in fact not anti-Semitic in nature. Criticizing Israel’s policies does not amount to criticizing Judaism or Jewish people. With Finkelstein’s remarks in mind, we as the authors want to make an imperative clarification. In criticizing Professor Pessin’s original Facebook post, which likened Palestinians to rabid pit bulls, students were not invoking anti-Semitism but were simply criticizing the racist and orientalist nature of his remarks. We can see how this is an instance of anti-Semitism discotorse being appropriated to mask Islamophobia.

The polarizing nature of the current conversation precludes productive dialogue on this subject. In order to transcend orientalist assumptions and language, we must stop making generalizations that impede dialogue. Similarly, we must become more critical of the way in which Western media portrays issues of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, using anti-Semitism to avoid criticism of the Israeli government and ignore orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims. It is evident from the events that have transpired on this campus that generalizations about Islam, Arabs, Jews and all of their representations perpetuate unproductive dialogue. We hope that in invoking Said’s discussion on Orientalism and Finkelstein’s discussion on anti-Semitism we have begun to provide a greater understanding of Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. •    

4 thoughts on “Demystifying Media Bias Surrounding Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Discourses”

Pessin Archive: Pessin’s Letter of Apology for Post, March 8, 2015

Letter to the Editor

I am truly sorry for the hurt and offense that I have caused via my Facebook post of last summer, to individuals on this campus and now beyond.

It was written last August in the middle of the war between Israel and Hamas, and sat quietly (if publically) on my Facebook page until a Connecticut College student, displaying courage and integrity, emailed me about it on February 18 and described in no uncertain terms how she felt about it. I acknowledged how much I respected her speaking up, apologized for my language in the post, and removed it that very day. But my initial apology to her, and then to many others since the Voice articles appeared two weeks afterward, was rather defensive in tone. I see now—particularly after a moving conversation with a group of bright, brave, and sincerely wounded Conn students—just how damaging and hurtful the language of that post was. I made a great mistake in writing in the inflammatory manner that I did, and deeply regret the injury that I caused and have now directly witnessed.

It’s essential for me also to remark that I in no way hold and do not condone the terrible racist views that have been ascribed to me on the basis of the language of this post. I hope that my past actions and words already demonstrate that I am not the person some now think I am; I know that my future actions and words will. Let my first such action be the reiteration of my deepest apology for causing such wounds.

Andrew Pessin

Professor of Philosophy

 -20

Pessin Archive: Khandaker’s Take on her Role in the Controversy, April 15, 2015

Why I Wrote My Letter-to-the-Editor and How a 19-Year-Old Received Backlash

Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the article written by the author for the April 13 print edition of issue 10.

Here is what really happened and where it all started.

It was 8:42 p.m. on February 18th when I received an email of an offensive Facebook post made by a philosophy professor from four concerned students. They had found it from the public Connecticut College Philosophy Department Facebook page.

When the initial students found the Facebook post their first instincts were to send it to the media right away, to print it out and paste it all over Blaustein and other academic buildings. But I had asked them not to.

After some time on contemplating how to proceed, I decided to compose an email. This would be my second concerned email to the same professor. The first time I expressed concern was on Jan. 24 over ideas he shared at a public Charlie Hebdo panel which made me and several other students feel uncomfortable. I emphasized to him the significance of acknowledging that intolerance and violence occur in various forms regardless of who perpetrates it, and the importance in having solidarity for all victims. I received a defensive, unapologetic, and more offensive response in return.  I did not engage with him after that until Feb. 18. I thought I would let him know that his use of language was bothering many students.

This is an excerpt of the response that I received:

“It’s particularly upsetting that in both the Hebdo case and the FB comment, you seem to have misunderstood or misinterpreted what I said.”

In addition to an attempt to justify the use of language by reference to a political conflict, followed by:

“If my analogy inadvertently invites that overly literal misunderstanding, then I am truly sorry and surely need to be more careful, and I’ve taken the post down to think about whether it does; and I appreciate your calling attention to that fact; but either way, it is a serious misunderstanding.”

For the second time in a row, I have been told that I had misunderstood language that was either harmful, offensive, derogatory, or dehumanizing. I asked myself: Should I continue to privately engage with someone who keeps dismissing me and telling me I misunderstand everything he says? If it was just me, then fine. But over a dozen faculty members, and dozens of students cannot all be mistaken.

Over the next two weeks many students, including myself, contemplated the best way to approach this. We were not seeking to criticize his pro-Israel views, but the use of irresponsible language from a philosophy professor. This was a group of intellectual young adults in college who understand the definition of racism as a “social structure that yields superiority and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others.” An analogy that justifies an “owner” and a “cage” in a sensitive region where women, children and civilians are known to die in large numbers is a racist analogy regardless of one’s political views. And we engaged with racism through the best outlet possible—our student-run college newspaper. 

My letter to the editor in The College Voice along with the others did not cause worldwide attention to his post. This attention was going to happen regardless of whether we had written them or not. My letter in addition to the other two actually stopped his post from getting into the media right away. I had advised students to keep it within the local community so we can have a community conversation about our values.

When my letter was published, the administration facilitated a private meeting with the professor and eight other students—the writers of the other College Voice letters and students who filled out a bias incident report. A few days afterwards, the professor issued a public apology to our college newspaper which I acknowledged publicly as well. My role in all this ended right there, right then.

The ending of my active role, however, did not stop other students from continuing to address this issue. A petition was created by others to ask the administration to take a clear stance on disrespectful, racist speech. This petition was created because students were tired of having the conversation end behind closed doors. But I still did not sign or share this petition.

I felt my role was to express grievances on behalf of underrepresented students who felt uncomfortable by this professor’s comments. I hoped whatever transpired afterwards would help push for a positive change for our school to move in the direction of a more acceptable community, but I ended up receiving backlash.

Andrew Pessin as a tenured professor reached out to media and singled out specific students. I immediately became vilified as the 19-year-old Muslim college student who silenced him for his political views.  David Bernstein, who writes in Volokh Conspiracy a Blog from the Washington Post—has simplified me to “a Bangladeshi who wears an Islamic head covering,” and made unsubstantiated claims of my affiliation with “anti-Semitic” and “terrorist-like” organizations. My involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine, the so-called “anti-Semitic, terrorist organization,” seeks to raise awareness on human rights abuses against Palestinians. Raising awareness and fostering controversial conversations do not amount to anti-Semitism.

I was stripped of my American identity and reduced to the Muslim activist who had targeted her professor. My name is blacklisted on hate blogs and national media. My past activity in high school (when I was a minor) was sensationalized to anti-Semitic, terrorist-like activity. The attempt to dig up dirt on a 19-year-old student was not only unprofessional from a grown tenured man, in league with a clearly bigoted journalist at the Washington Post, but also inappropriate. Has this professor lost sight of his role as an educator and protector of students?

We are all entitled to our political opinions. Not once have we attacked his right to have a political opinion. This was supposed to be a community dialogue on the use of racist speech. Ironically, I have been the one to be attacked for my free speech regarding my activity and commentary on political issues.

This is what happened to the 19-year-old who published a letter in her college newspaper only read by the immediate community, to the 19-year-old who has been vilified by the Washington Post. But I stand by my principles and will continue to criticize hate speech.

30 thoughts on “Why I Wrote My Letter-to-the-Editor and How a 19-Year-Old Received Backlash”

Pessin Archive: Balomenos Apology to Pessin, April 16, 2015

Letter to Professor Pessin

Note from the editor: This letter is an update from an earlier one written by Mr. Balomenos. You can read it here.

Dear Professor. Pessin,

I wish to formally apologize for the letter that I published in the Connecticut College Voice in early March 2015.  Since then, I have come to the realization that I made a grave error in writing and publishing such an accusatory piece outlining your actions and opinions.  I now understand that I was not operating with sufficient contextual knowledge on the matter, and thus misinterpreted your words.

I should like to make it absolutely clear that justice based on the information made available to me by current Connecticut College students was my only goal. I want to stress that I am not an anti-Semite, nor was I operating with any ulterior anti-Israel agenda.  Based solely on the information provided to me at the time, I was deeply uncomfortable with the opinions expressed; however, I now understand the entire background and context of the situation.  After reading some of the comments on my letter in the College Voice, it is obvious that I was naïve of how my words would inevitably be construed, and that the situation would explode into what it has. Thus, I am sorry for my accusatory and rash language, as well as the harm I have done to your reputation. At the time, I had the best intentions for the college community, about which I care deeply, but I now see that much to my distress, I have done far more harm than good to both you, and the community as a whole.

While I understand that my actions may be unforgivable and not soon forgotten, I would like to extend my sincerest compassion and empathy for the stress you and your family must be experiencing. It is my hope that as a community we can put this behind us and you are able to return to teaching as effectively as you have in the past. If you would like to discuss my actions further, or if there is anything I can do to help, I would be more than willing to do so.

 

Sincerely,

Zachary Bertrand Balomenos

Class of 2014

Amman, Jordan

Pessin Archives: Letter #3, Zachary Balomenos ’14, College Voice, March 2

Dear President Bergeron: A Letter from a Concerned Alum

Dear President Bergeron,

I hope your second year at Connecticut College is treating you well and that you are surviving the harsh winter.  While we only overlapped a semester at the college, I will always remember your involved and hands on style of leadership as something truly unique about Connecticut College.  From the Senior Dinner Series to welcoming my fellow Arabic Studies colleagues and me into your office for an honest discussion, I was moved by your desire to know the students on an individual basis.  Thus, I hope you will accept this letter detailing my deep concern over a matter that has recently come to my attention. 

I was extremely disappointed to learn this week of some rather hateful comments a certain Professor Pessin of the Philosophy Department wrote on his private Facebook page.  The comments purportedly outlined Professor Pessin’s views on Gaza and what precisely ought to be done with the people of Gaza.  I am not going to quote the comments, as apparently they have been removed and I don’t want to falsely accuse Professor Pessin or misquote him based off of hearsay.   

While I understand everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, even if hateful, I still feel this should be brought to your attention.   I am incredibly proud of Connecticut College and I shamelessly brag about it whenever I can.  However, I would be deeply disappointed in my alma mater if I knew that an individual entrusted to provide the education I am so thankful for so openly expressed such hateful and bigoted opinions on a public forum such as Facebook, even if it is a private account.  We are all representatives of the College, and thus, I worry about the message we would be sending if individuals who acted in such a racist and inappropriate manner were so irresponsibly employed by the school.  This certainly isn’t the school I brag about to everyone I meet, nor is it a school I would be proud of. 

Let me say, that I have known about Professor Pessin’s extremist opinions for some time, but his reported comments that I only recently learned about go much too far.  If true, it shouldn’t matter whom he said such remarks about, but rather that a member of our community expressed hatred and racism about any peoples.  While inappropriate to make a direct accusation without hard evidence in front of me, I do feel it my responsibility as an alumnus who cares about my school to bring this matter directly to your attention.  I believe that a thorough and immediate investigation into this matter is imperative. 

This comes at a time of global debate on freedom of expression and the limits of free speech.  Let me be the first to say that I stand with free speech and freedom of expression and I detest those who wish to restrict this.  However, there is a line between expressing one’s opinion and thoughts through thoughtful satire or discourse, and bigoted hate speech.  If true, the comments I have hopefully enlightened you on fall into the latter category. 

I hope you will look into this matter, not just for me, but also for the good of Connecticut College. 

Sincerely,
Zachary Bertrand Balomenos
Class of 2014
Amman, Jordan

Note from the Editor: Mr. Balomenos has written an update to his original letter, which can be read here.

Pessin Archives: Letter #2, Michael Fratt and Katilyn Garbe, College Voice, March 2

“Respect for the Dignity of all Beings”: The Honor Code and Hate Speech

We have often thought about the proliferation of student protests in the 1960s and how pervasive the culture of civil disobedience was during the time of the Vietnam War.  Are students in this day and age less politically active than previous generations?  Why do we not see outpourings of protest on this campus of the scale that used to be the norm?  Rarely in our time at Conn have we seen almost unanimous student uproar about any given injustice barring only the Fishbowl controversy.  On Wednesday February 25th, in the aftermath of an ironically timed event called the Jerusalem Food Tour celebrating shared humanity, we found our outrage.  We discovered information that put my apathy to rest; it made us sick.  It came to our knowledge that Andrew Pessin wrote on his Facebook page a rant on the nature of Palestinians.  Professor Pessin compared Gazan Palestinians to “rabid pit bulls” who need to be caged. He described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a cycle of letting the “snarling dogs” out of their “cage” and then beating them back into it.  One person named Nicole commented on the post suggesting the “dogs” be put down.  Professor Pessin responded, “I agree.”  Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people.  A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people.  This post came to the attention of students as well as faculty members and has thus far only been spoken of privately.  It is clear that the imagery used is not only incredibly offensive, but also particularly damaging within the culture of Islam, which has a potent conceptualization of dogs.  We vehemently believe that this deserves the attention of the Conn community: students, staff, and alumni.

What does this statement made by a faculty representative of our school say when our College is in the process of hiring a Dean of Inclusive Excellence? How can we stay true to our ideals as a college that prides itself so much on our inclusive learning community?  We must ask ourselves, what kind of community do we want to be?  According to a noted scholar of the Rwandan genocide, James Waller, “dehumanizing victims removes normal moral constraints against aggression.”  We all know that it is through dehumanizing language that hate crimes begin.  We call upon students, faculty, and alumni to ask themselves: Is there a place for this language at Connecticut College?  We wonder ourselves how this particular situation would play out had this Professor spoken out against Jews or LGBTQ individuals. We believe that if Professor Pessin made these comments about women, African Americans, Jews, LGBTQ individuals or any other underrepresented group this issue would have reached our ears earlier and he would have been dealt with swiftly.  This is not about the beliefs of Professor Pessin regarding Israel or Palestine; this is about hate speech.

Based on an ancient Athenian oath of citizenship, Connecticut College’s Honor Code states:

“We will never, by any selfish or other unworthy act, dishonor this our College; individually and collectively we will foster her ideals and do our utmost to instill a respect in those among us who fail in their responsibility; unceasingly we will strive to quicken a general realization of our common duty and obligation to our College. And thus in manifold service we will render our Alma Mater greater, worthier, and more beautiful.”

We invite students, faculty, and alumni to ask themselves: Are the statements of this professor in tune with the ideals of the honor code? We as students are bound by this honor code and are expected to uphold it within the external community as much as we are expected to uphold it on our campus. If a student said these words what could we expect as a response? Are professors not bound by the same moral standards of the honor code?  Should we expect more from them as leaders of this institution? 

We humbly address President Bergeron.  We humbly address Dean Van Slyck, Dean Denard, Dean Arcelus, Dean Zimmer, Dean Highbaugh, Dean Garcia and the Board of Trustees.  We call for a conversation; cancel classes, events, and athletics on one day.  This must be addressed.  The administration cannot keep silent over such disgusting hate speech.  We Implore a response and for the Administration to take action. Years ago before we were students here the former president cancelled all events one day in the wake of a racist hate crime on campus and established an open mic discussion in Palmer that stopped the College in its tracks.  This event is deserving of the same attention and we must have a discussion as a campus regarding what the shared values of this College ought to be.  Be angry, talk to your professors, start the conversation.  This outrage should not be a private matter, this must be public and we must re-evaluate what we think our values are as students, faculty, and alumni of this college. Students need this, staff needs this, we need to lament, we need context, and we need a thoughtful discussion.  This is a red line, one that has been crossed.  How we proceed now is up for debate. 

Pessin Archives: Letter #1, Lamiya Khandaker, College Voice, March 2

On March 2, The College Voice published three letters from four students informing the college community about Pessin’s Facebook post. The letters make no reference to the fact that the post was from the previous summer, that Pessin had already clarified (and apologized for) its apparent ambiguity, and deleted it two weeks prior to these letters. The College Voice did not warn Pessin that these letters were being published, nor invite him to respond or comment in the same issue. The second letter was later proven to have changed Pessin’s words in the comment thread to the post to make it seem like he was calling for genocide of Palestinians when in fact he was calling for the defeat of Hamas.

The first letter is, from Lamiya Khandaker, student chair of the Committee for Diversity and Equity, and the main student protagonist in the affair, whose prior correspondence with Professor Pessin was substantial. Letter posted here with extensive subsequent commentary.

Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech in an “Inclusive Excellence” Community

I am infuriated, repulsed and depressed. I feel unsafe.  Free speech is a given.  Free speech means that you have the right to say what you want to say without the penalty of breaking the law.  Does that mean free speech is acceptable in all circumstances? No. Not when your free speech is hate speech and takes place in a community which professes values of “diversity and equity,” and “inclusive excellence.”

I had not understood the exact importance of my role as Chair of Diversity and Equity until actual encounters with subtle institutional racism were taking place at our academic institution.  Not until the college decided to paste my face as the face of diversity, yet sweeps under the rug when an influential member of its own community actively engages in dangerous hate speech.  Not until it took a few of us students to identify a problem that should have been recognized long ago by the administration itself. This is not diversity and equity. This is not inclusive excellence. This is institutional racism.

People have this misconception that racism and bigotry are direct; that they are in your face; that they are physical acts. No.  Racism isn’t explicit. Racism is subtle.  Racism is institutional. Racism is systematic. Racism is embedding seeds of hate and bigotry into the psyche of social culture. Racism is only the foundation of what leads to later acts of violence.  Racism takes root when we have influential academics in our school who publicly express views of bigotry. Racism is accepted when the institution fails to address the responsibility of academics to watch what they say.

I have had several email exchanges with Professor Andrew Pessin regarding my concerns as an underrepresented student on campus.  And each time, his response was more of a, “I’m sorry you misunderstood what I said.” On the contrary, I did not misunderstand.  I did not misunderstand his contribution at the Charlie Hebdo panel when he posed indirect, yet problematic questions such as, “How do we tolerate cultures of intolerance?” only to end his portion of the Q-and-A session with an emphasis of hate crimes perpetrated by Muslims. I did not misunderstand the content of this public Facebook post that insinuated Palestinians (NOT Hamas) as “rabid pit-bulls.“  I did not misunderstand when he told me that, “Muslim terrorists were at the top of the totem pole as perpetrators of violence.” Tell me, what part of all this did I misunderstand? The fact that I may be a “liberal animal rights activist” sympathizing with this “rabid pit bull?” Oh no wait, perhaps, I am the “co-specimen” who sympathizes. Because my people are breeds of dogs, and not human beings? Or, perhaps I misunderstood his floods of articles that specifically talk about the failure of addressing “Arab and Muslim terrorism.” 

Just imagine if he substituted Gaza for “Ferguson.” Imagine if he spoke of “Ferguson thugs” as “rabid pit bulls” needing to be “caged,” by its “owner” who provides it with “government assistance, affirmative action, and welfare.” But when giving these “Ferguson thugs” a little bit of space to “breathe;” they start “snarling” and “aim for the throat,” and as a result need to be “put down.” And if you sympathize with Ferguson thugs, you’re either one yourself, or a liberal animal rights activist. Just imagine if all his postings were about Black crime. Would you raise an eyebrow?

One only needs to look at the recent horrific murders of the three Muslim Arab Americans in the UNC shootings to acknowledge that violence against minorities occur through the repetition of stereotypes; through the repetition of “the other” as the violent one; through engrained feelings of fear, hate and bigotry.  I have had Professor Pessin as a student and never felt victimized in class.  As a matter of fact, many students find him smart, engaging, and influential. But that is the problem. If students are finding an academic within our institution as smart and influential, and then read his overtly public hateful posts regarding socio-political issues, they are going to listen and absorb. They are going to be influenced by his words, and that is the biggest danger.

In a time when everyday news headlines are sensationalizing the correlation between “Muslims” and “Terrorism,” it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe as a Muslim. I feel unsafe when I go out to the local community. I felt unsafe when my quick stop to Shop Rite resulted in dirty looks, and couples bringing up the topic of ISIS purposely in front of me. I feel unsafe if this is what our own academics are publicizing. 

Our academic community, and all academic communities need to address actual issues of diversity, acceptable speech and community values for the sake of the safety of all students, and faculty– especially underrepresented ones.  Our academic communities need to have zero tolerance for such speech.  It does not matter if these aren’t vocalized in a classroom. It matters if you are an active community member who publicizes such views, no matter where you are.

If I am going to recite, “We will never, by any selfish or other unworthy act, dishonor this our College; individually andcollectively we will foster her ideals and do our utmost to instill a respect in those among us who fail in their responsibility; unceasingly we will strive to quicken a general realization of our common duty and obligation to our College. And thus in manifold service we will render our Alma Mater greater, worthier, and more beautiful,every Thursday night, then I expect to see such behavior on our campus on behalf of ALL its members. Or else, I don’t want to be your face of Diversity.•

Pessin Archive: Online Petition Posted March 18, 2015

Originally sponsored by Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, editor-in-chief of The College Voice, subsequently taken over on April 2 by Aparna Gopalan, Opinions Editor of The College Voice. The petition went through several revisions. Originally it named Prof. Pessin by name, but after Pessin informed Zuraw-Friedland that the petition was generating anti-Semitic hate mail and threats to him and his family, she made the petition more anonymous and transferred sponsorship to Gopalan. (Still, the information in the petition makes it easy for anyone to find out who the professor is, and Pessin’s name remains explicit through the hundreds of comments.) This is the text of the petition as of May 28, 2015. It presents only the first paragraph of Prof. Pessin’s FB post, leaving out the second paragraph (which made it clearer that the post was about Hamas) and the comment thread (which makes it explicit that the post is about Hamas). [Bold text in original.]

Online Petition Posted March 18, 2015

On March 8, a philosophy professor who made the above remarks about Palestinians issued an apology in The College Voice for a post on his personal Facebook page (published publicly in August 2014) that caused widespread alarm in the campus community. The professor’s apology was in response to three Letters to the Editors published in the March 2, 2015 edition of The Voice written by three current students and an alum.

Since then, two emails have been sent out from the President of Connecticut College asking for our participation in an event that has been planned for March 25th in which the community will “reflect.”

What is missing from all of this is any desire for the senior administration of the College as a whole to develop the competency to identify racism when we see it. This is a vital component of our advancement with regards to inclusive excellence.

For the students who brought the issue forward, President Bergeron has said: “I commend them and many others for their courage.” However, victims of racism who have had to publicly fight racism on their own need more than the College’s admiration. Commendation is not a substitute for actual, public support or an excuse to leave the work of combating institutional racism to a handful of minority students.

The senior administration of the College has refused to publicly acknowledge the racist nature of what has occurred and has not taken steps to remedy this problem. We demand an end to silence.

We the undersigned acknowledge the professor’s apology and hope that it is a sign of enhanced understanding of what precisely constitutes racist speech. We firmly believe and uphold the principle of free speech – free speech, moreover, that entitles one to their racist, homophobic, sexist, bigoted or violently hateful opinions.

We do not believe censoring the professor to be the answer. That we are in disagreement with his opinions does not mean we wish to silence them, because, in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union,

Pessin Archive: Announcement of Establishment of Global Islamic Studies, March 4

At a key moment in the Pessin Affair (two days after the school newspaper attack), the college announced the launching of a new major in “Global Islamic Studies.” Since the chair of this new program was perhaps the most prominent actor in the attack on Pessin, the launching of the program and the remarks of all involved, including Dean Van Slyck, about the “activist” nature of the research involved bears close attention. [Bold mine]

March 4 Press Release Announcing the New Major In Global Islamic Studies

College announces new global Islamic studies major

Bo Martin ’15 is interested in the impact of Islam on the fight for racial equality in the United States. It’s the subject of a senior honors thesis he is currently writing as one of the College’s first global Islamic studies majors.

“It’s is a great mix of government, religion, linguistics, sociology and nearly every other humanities and social science,” says Martin of global Islamic studies.

Area studies

The multidisciplinary new major was approved by Connecticut College faculty in November, and already 10 students have declared their intentions to major or minor in the subject. That’s a testament to students’ interest in the role of Islam and the influence of Muslims throughout the world, says Associate Professor of Religious Studies Sufia Uddin.

“Islam is one of the fastest growing religions, and less than 15 percent of Muslims are in the Middle East,” says Uddin. “We are challenging preconceived notions and rethinking how we understand Muslims and the role of Islam in the world.”