The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, May 07, 2002  


If you find yourself in Cambridge, Mass., today with nothing to do -- and we mean absolutely nothing -- stop by the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a gathering that may be at least slightly informative and perhaps even a bit entertaining.

The announcement of a major break-through in quantum physics? A thorough trashing of Einstein’s theory of relativity? The discovery of another solar system?

Hardly. M.I.T. today is hosting a “teach-in.”

Before we get into the particulars of today’s festivities, can we ask why, in 2002, we’re still having “teach-ins”? Can we not as a culture collectively toss this 1960s relic into the proverbial dustbin of history and derive a more modern -- and more accurate -- turn of phrase?

After all, readers too young to have been assaulted by the non-stop tantrums, mendacity, intimidation, and plain old vandalism associated with the “student left” in the 1960s and 1970s may not be familiar with the term. A “teach-in,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “[a]n extended session, as on a college or university campus, for lectures and discussions on an important, usually controversial issue.”

How intellectually stimulating, politically benign, and ideologically neutral that sounds.

Now, we have no doubt that there have been a handful of “teach-ins” on college campuses during the past 40-odd years that actually entailed the presentation of “lectures” (perhaps even lectures by participants with differing points of view) and a few that truly fostered meaningful “discussions” of “important” and “controversial” issues.

Nonetheless, we are beyond convinced that, for the most part, “teach-ins” have been strictly left-wing fare, one-sided indoctrination sessions, littered with propaganda, exaggeration, inaccuracies, and extreme emotionalism. And “teach-ins” have been far more likely than not to descend into a cesspool of unoriginal and simplistic chanting and sloganeering, and even to rioting and the wanton destruction of property.

But we digress.

Today’s Cambridge “teach-in” is the latest action in an ongoing protest of Israeli defense policy by a group of faculty members from M.I.T. and its neighbor, Harvard University.

“About 75 faculty members at the two institutions have signed an online petition asking the schools to divest from companies doing business in Israel until its forces withdraw from occupied territories, among other conditions,” reports Jenna Russell in today’s Boston Globe.

We’ll give our loyal readers just one guess as to which M.I.T. or Harvard faculty member is behind today’s session.

It’s Noam Chomsky, of course. A man who ranks second only to Ramsey Clark in his detachment from reality and his propensity to vulgarize discourse wherever he treds.

It is our understanding that several decades ago Chomsky published a grand treatise in his chosen field of linguistics -- something to do with syntax, we think. What to a typical young scholar would be considered a promising starting point in his field served Chomsky as a convenient point of departure. The peripatetic Professor Chomsky, who must have the lightest teaching load in America, if he has one at all, is now far better known as “America’s leading intellectual dissident” than as a linguistics scholar.

Granted, he has issued additional tomes in linguistics (or at least peripherally) of varying quality and relevance, but Chomsky learned early in his career that essays on syntax, sound patterns, grammar, and semantics don’t sell many books and they certainly don’t get the writer mentioned in the New York Times with any frequency. From our vantage point it appears that linguistics runs a distant second on Chomsky’s priority list, favoring instead as he does to meander with considerable confusion and increasing paranoia into racier topics such as politics, foreign policy, economics, and social policy, and beyond that into his current obsessions: American “imperialism” [Ed.: Our scare quotes.] and global “terrorism” [Ed.: Chomsky’s scare quotes.].

Teaming up with Chomsky is one Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T. “Working with a Harvard faculty friend and input from Chomsky, Kanwisher modeled the petition after one organized at Princeton University,” according to the Globe.

“It states that signers are ‘appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government,’ and that they ‘find the recent attacks on Israeli citizens unacceptable and abhorrent. But these do not and should not negate the human rights of the Palestinians,’’’ Russell reports.

As of Monday, according to the Globe, 40 M.I.T. and 39 Harvard faculty members have signed the group’s petition, which really isn’t very many given the size of the pool of potential signatories and the rather tame language used in the petition.

Opposition already has emerged on both campuses. Some of it reasoned and rational. Some of it intemperate and cranky.

Under “reasonable and rational” we find Paul Gottesman, a Harvard Law student: “It’s ridiculous. The people who are involved in this divestment campaign are basically trying to impose economic sanctions on Israel. These are the same people who continually oppose economic sanctions against countries like Cuba and Iraq. So I wonder what their motivations are.’’

Under “intemperate and cranky” we find -- as ever -- Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School professor, lousy-book writer, and unabashed publicity hound. Says Dershowitz: ‘‘Any effort to divest from Israel would fail because it would destroy any university that attempted it. Faculty would leave, students would refuse to attend, the contributors would refuse to contribute. I would not remain at any university that would divest from Israel.”

Gottesman is correct. Chomsky can’t heap enough praise on Iraq, Cuba, and their despotic leaders. Nor can he applaud loudly enough went the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein vent their spleens at the U.S. government and the American people regarding any number of their delusional conspiratorial fantasies.

But Dershowitz's threat is wrong, or at least exaggerated. That Harvard or M.I.T., or any other elite American university, would collapse because it sold its investments in companies operating in Israel is sheer nonsense. Are we to believe that no one would want to assume the teaching positions or occupy the dorm rooms vacated in Cambridge and New Haven?

Besides, the divestment campaigns aimed at the old apartheid regime in South Africa took a decade or more to bear the limited fruit they did. And surely in 10 years Israel and the Palestinians will have settled their differences, making the entire matter irrelevant. Right?

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