Review of De Genova’s “Within and Against the Imperial University”

Nicholas De Genova. 2014. “Within and Against the Imperial University”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 301-328). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

In this chapter, Nicholas De Genova analyzes a critical juncture in his career, when, on March 26th, 2003, he spoke against the U.S. invasion of Iraq at an antiwar teach-in at Columbia University. His comments at the teach-in were covered by mass media and interpreted as a death wish for the thousands of U.S soldiers participating in the Iraq war, with grim consequences for both his personal and professional life. De Genova’s chapter consists of two parts. In the first part, De Genova explains the context of his remarks at the antiwar teach-in that generated the media controversy in the first place. In the second part of the chapter, he describes multiple events and encounters triggered by his remarks, and what these reactions reveal about the present reality of academic freedom.

De Genova contextualizes his speech by highlighting the “hysterical mania for war” prevalent in 2003 which was propagated by the mass media with “a jingoistic craving for the death of the Enemy” (p. 302). In response, he argues, the antiwar movement had to articulate an uncompromising, equally confrontational and incorrigible position critiquing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In addition, De Genova emphasizes that when speaking at the antiwar teach-in he had to confront his audience with the fact that “if it was death that the prowar mob was seeking, then it was death indeed that they would reap” (p. 302). De Genova’s rhetoric was partially inspired by the events that occurred in Mogadishu, a city in Somalia where eighteen U.S. soldiers died during a military operation whose failure instigated the retreat of U.S. military forces from Somalia in 1993. Encouraged by the U.S. failure in Somalia, De Genova declared during his teach-in speech that he would welcome “a million Mogadishus now” in the hope of the same scenario to occur in Iraq, which would consequently enable the political self-determination of the Iraqi people (p. 303).  De Genova further contextualizes his comments by evoking the violent history of U.S nationalism and imperialism responsible for multiple forms of colonial conquest, genocide, slavery, racism and warfare. Considering the violent history of the United States, De Genova argues that all forms of American patriotism perpetuate the global domination of the American empire. For this reason, De Genova argues for the necessity of a discourse in the American antiwar movement which should be unconditionally unpatriotic, anticipating a world in which “the United States would have no place” (p. 303). De Genova concludes that the logic of an anti-imperialist position necessitates the endorsement of political scenarios in which the United States ultimately suffers a military defeat.

In the second part of the chapter, De Genova discusses how university officials, faculty members, members of Columbia University community, the media, members of congress and multiple other actors responded to his speech. De Genova argues, for instance, that the statement made by Columbia University’s president in response to the “a million Mogadishus” comment demonstrated empathy towards soldiers and their families, instead of innocent Iraqi civilians who are subjected to the violence of the U.S. military. In his own response, the chair of the anthropology department condemned any statements that would support violence against soldiers or civilians. In response, De Genova argues that both administrators fail to recognize the violent role of American soldiers in inflicting “the most devastating harm” on Iraqi civilians (p. 305). Overall, the administration of university denounced and publicly ridiculed De Genova while maintaining that he was nonetheless protected by the First Amendment and could not be fired, as demanded by 104 U.S. congressmen and filmmaker Steven Spielberg among many others. De Genova also received countless death threats, which caused numerous disruptions in his work and personal life, since his security and the security of his family had to be constantly considered on daily basis.

De Genova did receive some unconditional support from some colleagues and students at Columbia University. At the same time, however, there were also faculty members who argued that even though De Genova had the right to express his point of view, he, nonetheless, should also be accountable to a larger antiwar movement at Columbia. Rosalind Morris, for instance, argued that De Genova had to acknowledge the predicament and the damage that his infamous teach-in speech created for the antiwar movement at Columbia and in the United States. De Genova concludes that the dispute between faculty colleagues revealed the tacit responsibility tied to “permissible” free speech at Columbia as well as the boundaries of what is acceptable for an academic to say. The dispute reinforced a tacit code of conduct, demonstrating the limited conditions under which departmental collegiality would be upheld. De Genova further maintains that in such departmental circumstances he became treated as an object of toleration whose right to speak was frequently invoked, and yet who was ostensibly kept silent through his ongoing exclusion from the debates concerning his own speech. According to De Genova, the initial portrayal of his character as an outside agitator who acted irresponsibly by failing to stay within the unstated boundaries of acceptable academic “free speech,” instigated an institutional mechanism that sought to make him into an actual outsider. As a result of these processes, De Genova was never invited again to speak publicly at Columbia and his tenure promotion was eventually denied, in spite of his exemplary research and publication record.

Although the reaction of Columbia’s president and the more conservative U.S. congressmen and actors seem to be predictable, I found the discussion that was generated within the department and within the antiwar movement interesting and stimulating, producing difficult questions. For instance, does the use of polarizing antiwar arguments concerning the U.S. patriotism empower or disempower antiwar movements? In the case of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, should American antiwar activists, as David Scott put it, “talk about ‘patriotism’ as an obfuscation” while underlining and elaborating on the injustice of the war? (p. 312). Can the utopian vision of the world where the United States has no place be useful to the antiwar efforts of American activists? Personally, even though I understand the context of De Genova’s comments, I think his case demonstrates the importance of nuance when discussing political positions. The scholarly ability of articulating nuanced arguments is precisely what can keep academic work from being co-opted by the dominant powers. As the case with De Genova’s comments demonstrates, there is not always an adequate platform that will allow an academic to expand on the meaning of his or her initial comments, regardless of his or her willingness to engage in further debate on the topic. This is a pessimistic lesson, but it demonstrates how the university can function, in response to which antiwar activists and academics need to develop new strategies.

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