Joseph Shahadi: One of the things I really love about your book (and the reason I went to hear you speak at Alwan in the first place) is that you went after some sacred cows in critiquing US liberals, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Moore, Michael Lerner and Katha Pollitt among others... Why did you decide to write about liberals at a moment when we are living with an ongoing legacy of very bad things courtesy of the US Right?
Steven Salaita: Mostly because US liberals, to be frank, had been annoying me for some time in terms of their approach not only to Arabs and Muslims but to the global south more broadly. By reading their work closely, it became clear that many US liberals are part of the same apparatus that produces the very bad things they like to attribute solely to the right. If political thinkers just sit around criticizing and piling on the right, then we miss some really important ways to analyze empire, economics, race, and so forth.
Joseph Shahadi: I agree with you but let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment...
Steven Salaita: Please do.
Joseph Shahadi: What would you say to someone who argues that the US Right is more dangerous to Arabs and Muslims (and the Global South more broadly) than the Left because of their trademarked brand of religion ‘n guns?
The "attack Christians", if you will.
... As opposed to liberals who are well intentioned, if not always perfect in terms of execution (no pun intended).
Steven Salaita: I would say that these "attack Christians" are indeed dangerous to Arabs and Muslims, but only in a distinct, limited sense. Let me try to draw out what I mean: Yes, (for example) it's much more likely that a Christian Zionist will support a policy that is genocidal vis-à-vis the Palestinians, say. But if we limit our critique to that Christian Zionist, we will also miss all types of other useful points of analysis. For instance, people get bombed in other parts of the world--Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.--because the US government is beholden to the interests of a very small financial elite, not to liberals, and not to "the people," whatever that means.
This reality is much more dangerous to those who are colonized or otherwise oppressed.
Joseph Shahadi: What are some of the liberal parallels to that Christian Zionist?
Steven Salaita: Lots of liberals support Israel. They sound nice about it, and give some B.S. overtures about a vague "two-state solution" here and there, but in the end their loyalty is to Israel as an ethnocentric state. They may disagree with Christian Zionists on every other issue (unlikely), but on this issue they are in basic agreement. That's why liberal Zionist organizations work with Christian Zionists and cater to them. So, if you're a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, does it matter whether your oppression is being supported by a liberal or a religious zealot? Of course not. The Palestinian needs the boot to be removed from her neck.
The point, anyway, is that if we care about justice we need to criticize anybody who is facilitating injustice, regardless of political orientation, party, religion, or nationality.
Joseph Shahadi: The reason I ask about your practice of questioning the liberal left is that it seems that the Democrats are so busy in-fighting that they cannot present a united front against the Conservative movement, which gets nuttier by the day... So I want to be clear: you are suggesting that it is always better to hold even your putative friends accountable for their racism, ethnocentrism etc. even when the conservative right is more or less unified in their antipathy for you/us?
Steven Salaita: Well, now that you put it this way... yes. This isn't a universal rule, I don't suppose, but in the end when my putative friends are working and profiting from the same system that my explicit enemy exploits, then it’s the system I have to attack. I'm not interested in rowing with one paddle. Anyway, if we take your metaphor (a good one, by the way) to its logical conclusion then I'd say that in the end my putative friends would take the side of my enemy when push comes to shove. My friends are those who care about other human beings more than they do about preserving the trappings of some benign-sounding ideology.
Joseph Shahadi: That is a great summary of the main theme of your book.
Steven Salaita: Thank you.
Joseph Shahadi: Of course Palestine/Israel is a perfect example of this push-comes- to-shove phenomenon, so is Palestine a limit-case for you in re: to "First World" racism/colonialism/imperialism?
Steven Salaita: I try not to limit myself to Palestine as a continual litmus-test, but it just happens to be the issue by which people's real commitments are exposed. I remember when I was at UW-Whitewater a few years ago. A group of activists brought a divestment resolution to the faculty senate. It was quite a good resolution, too.
Now, the folks in Wisconsin--the academics, anyway--fancy themselves proudly progressive, and in many ways they are. When the resolution came to the senate, I showed up in support of it, of course. It was a no-brainer to me. Israel is breaking tons of international laws and mistreating people. It is therefore in accordance with the university's mission statement to divest from companies that aid and abet such human rights abuses. Yet when I got there, I saw half my department--loud progressives, all--speaking against the resolution. One of the activists, Mohammed Abed, told one of them, who had said he's against the occupation, "If you're really against the occupation, then why don't you do something about
This question, needless to say, went unanswered.
This is one of many cases in which people's stated viewpoints don't at all match what they're actually willing to do when the time comes to act, even in completely tepid and nonviolent ways.
Joseph Shahadi: I have also found this to be so.
Steven Salaita: Yes, it happens all the time. That's why I never believe the poll numbers liberal Zionists and some misguided Palestine activists like to cite about support for a resolution to the conflict.
Joseph Shahadi: When you and I met I was a guest correspondent at Racialicous. I'd been a regular commenter and was invited to contribute articles. Despite the fact that the site covered a wide range of racial and ethnic struggles (macro and micro) from all over the world, at a certain point I became uncomfortable with the overwhelming silence about Israel… And I wasn’t alone in that feeling. But when any of the Arab or Muslim members of the community brought it up we were loudly shouted down by 1) Aggressive male Zionists who suddenly overran various threads and made it impossible to continue…
Steven Salaita: [nodding vigorously]
Joseph Shahadi: …and/or 2) passive aggressive female Zionists who announced suddenly that they "Didn't feel safe"... my least favorite way to control a conversation...
Needless to say these tactics worked. Every. Single. Time.
So I suggested that the commenting policy on the site be amended to include a statement of support for Palestine, or at least to provide a check on Zionist bullying that prevented any real discussion of the issue. The commenting policy at Racialicious is comprehensive, going beyond even "racial" categories and encompassing things like LGBT friendly language, which I totally support as a necessary corrective to establish ethical guidelines for conversation. So it's not as if what I suggested was unprecedented.
And they said no. Flat out.
Steven Salaita: That's a shame. I'm actually finishing up a book on what I think is the same topic: how Zionism has entered into the spaces of convivial multicultural dialogue. So to criticize Zionism--an ethnonationalist movement, for fuck sake--is somehow to be apportioned into some bizarre radical stance that is outside the boundaries of respectability. But such a move is ultimately problematic, possibly dangerous. It relies on a conflation of Zionism with Jewish culture. It's never good when an ethnic/religious culture is conflated with the actions of a nation-state, particularly one as aggressive as Israel.
Joseph Shahadi: And/or there is a cultivated ignorance on the topic as in, "well I don't know enough about it to offer an opinion..." What's to know?
Steven Salaita: I think that rationale is a stand-in for fear, or at least it is very often. The best way to lose one's liberal base of support is to criticize Israel too strongly. Or, hell, to criticize it at all.
Joseph Shahadi: There is a vague notion that Zionism IS Judaism, which is ridiculous. That's like saying communism is the same as Cuban ethnic identities: one is a political philosophy and the other is a religious and ethnic identity...
Steven Salaita: Exactly. But that's where ethnonationalism leads us. Ultimately, it's about who acts and how he or she acts. Any asshole can sound like a humanist.
Joseph Shahadi: I left Racialicious because they wouldn't commit one way or another--I said "If you support Israel at the expense of Palestine you ought to say so... you have a lot of Arab and Muslim readers who should know where you stand" But they refused... And then after I left the editor told me they were planning to ban me anyway. Like, "You can't quit, you’re fired!" Since the pieces I wrote for them on a whole range of topics were popular, while the aforementioned Zionists contributed nothing to the community beyond obstruction, and violated its decorum with impunity, the only real justification for asking me to leave was my open support of Palestine.
Steven Salaita: Being banned for opposing Zionism. We should start a club. We could get thousands of members in a day, unfortunately. I don't generally read Racialicious, mainly because I followed a debate there once about Zionism and came away disappointed. But there is an important broader issue here, and that's how Zionist activists have so effectively positioned Zionism and Israel as proper objects of multicultural decorum. In many ways, we can say that Zionists have colonized multiculturalism, and so in spaces that celebrate racial diversity and such, there's very often an ostensible "Jewish" presence that in reality is a Zionist presence. At the very least there isn't often any type of Palestinian presence.
Joseph Shahadi: Have you experienced any lasting professional consequences for being outspoken? About Palestine, or anything?
Steven Salaita: No I don't think I’ve dealt with any negative professional consequences. I've been lucky. I work hard. I say what I need to say. My colleagues generally leave me be, and I afford them the same courtesy. I can make lots of guesses about repercussions (on the job market, for instance), but I have no evidence to prove my suspicions.
Joseph Shahadi: One of my oldest friends, a black guy who is a journalist, had a difficult period professionally about ten years ago. He was stuck and he couldn't figure out why. So I asked
him, do you think any of the resistance you are experiencing is racial? And he said, "I try not to think about that question because there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t be less black."
Steven Salaita: That's true. I try not to think about it. I guess we just try to control what we can control. The problem is that these realities compel people to be silent about all sorts of terrible things in the world. Academe has always been that way, though. People of color are denied tenure all the time because their work isn't "rigorous" or "theoretical" enough, a coded way of saying that they're too interested in producing writing that matters.
Joseph Shahadi: And God forbid, you try to cross campus without your ID visible or get into your office after hours...
Steven Salaita: (pause)… Sorry, got my cat crawling all over my keyboard.
Joseph Shahadi: Ha. My dog is So Profoundly Asleep at my feet. He could not be less interested in this conversation.
Steven Salaita: Aaah, Rocket. I know him from your blog. My cat isn't so cerebral right now.
Joseph Shahadi: Yes, Rocket is very famous.
Have you had any blowback from your book? You go after some pretty big names...
Steven Salaita: No, I haven't. People ask me that often, expecting that the answer will be "yes." I thought for sure I'd get some blowback. I think I haven't for two main reasons: the liberal-left that I criticize seems to be obsessed with the far right and pretty much blows off what they consider to be the fringe left (though I honestly don't know where I belong on this political spectrum); and because very few people, all things considered, have read it. It's not the sort of title that ends up at the local Borders.
Joseph Shahadi: Well, let's try to change that. ATTENTION: IF YOU ARE WITHIN THE SOUND OF MY VOICE GO AND READ STEVE'S BOOK THE UNCULTURED WARS, THANK YOU.
Steven Salaita: Ha! And give the poor bastard some blowback already.
Joseph Shahadi: Exactly, we want to see you trying to get a word in edgewise on Hardball.
Steven Salaita: I'm sure Rachel Maddow would adore me.
Joseph Shahadi: If you get to go on Maddow I am your roadie. I called it.
Steven Salaita: It's yours.
Joseph Shahadi: I'll go on ahead of you and say stuff like "Steve needs a mineral water!"
Steven Salaita: And eucalyptus tea. (I don't know what that is, but it seems like something a media celebrity should drink.)
Joseph Shahadi: Exactly.
END PART ONE