About a week ago, I started jumping into discussion forums related to the ASA boycott.

Unlike discussion I tried to have with PCUSA members who supported this summer’s divestment vote, ASA boycott debates were taking place on news sites that (in contrast to allegedly dialog-starved Presbyterian bloggers) don’t tend to delete challenging posts.

Even so, my ASA interlocutors tended to get scarce once they faced questions to which they had no answers (especially regarding the absence of any support whatsoever from the field in terms of implementing a boycott they insist represents “landslide” opinion within their organization).

Absent genuine conversation, the most interesting phenomenon I observed during these exchanges involved the techniques the BDSers used to avoid debate, including a familiar set of arguments regarding whether things like the ASA boycott represent inconsistency, and thus hypocrisy.

Those defending ASA (and other BDS groups) against accusations of double standards tend to point out that they are under no obligation to fight all the battles in the world.  Which means that (for them, anyway) they are fully justified in implementing a boycott against Israeli universities for perceived injustice while not doing the same over other injustice (real or perceived) elsewhere.

On the surface, this argument actually holds up.  For aren’t all humans creatures of inconsistency, especially with regard to politics?  Don’t we select which charities we give to and which causes we support, even as we know full well that other charities and causes support people who are far needier?  My wife is off to a community farm meeting tonight, just as I will be out tomorrow to participate in my sons’ Boy Scout meeting.  But is the naches we gain from being involved in these charitable causes diminished by the fact that we could be spending our time feeding the poor and healing the sick, rather than supporting a couple of civic organizations that don’t fight famine, pestilence and plague?

Similarly, I choose to fight against the forces of BDS rather than join the struggle to free Tibet or liberate the North Korean people from the loonocracy that has impoverished and enslaved them.   And if I have made such a choice, who am I to criticize the BDSers for dedicating their time and effort towards attacking just one country (Israel) vs. other nations where mass murder and repression represent daily occurrences?

But that “on the surface” phrase telegraphs my real opinion that the “don’t tell me I can’t attack Israel before I condemn ISIS” defense is, at best, superficial.  For this attack on Israel is not being made in the name of personal political preference, but in the name of universal values (human rights, academic freedom, the fight against bigotry and imperialism).  It is only when questions get raised about how much the boycotters actually subscribe to these values (vs. using them as propaganda tools) that we revert to the far thinner “it’s a free country/I can choose who I politick against” argument.

The assumption that criticizing the double (or triple) standard directed at Israel consists merely of calling people inconsistent (or hypocritical) also misses a far more interesting point that we can draw from the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the same philosopher I mentioned during that recent discussion of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals).

In the Alinsky series, I talked about how it is never moral for anyone to use someone else as a “mere means” towards their ends.  But Kant’s philosophy also included the “Categorical Imperative” which asks people to consider whether the motivation for their actions, if translated into a universal rule, would lead to moral or immoral consequences.

To a certain extent, this is just a fancy philosophical version of the “what if everyone did it” argument used by parents since time immemorial.  But Kant’s reasoning carries a pragmatic usefulness if used to interrogate the principles upon which someone’s choices are based.  For when asked to articulate such principles, most people try to locate their choices in something loftier than personal preference.  And it is the window on the soul such an articulation generates that invites meaningful scrutiny.

For example, if you were to ask an ASA member for the principles upon which their boycott was based, they might say that the behavior of the Israeli government (and Israeli universities which they claim represent that government – even if only tangentially) makes boycotting Israeli universities appropriate.  But if taken to a universal level, that would make it legitimate for any group to boycott the academics of any nation whose government did things that group did not approve of.

In fact, if we universalize still further, the boycott would seem to indicate that anyone with a political grievance against either a nation or its academics (or just a group of academics) was free to choose and implement their own punishments, up to and including excluding them from a wider academic community (i.e., a boycott).  Which ultimately translates to prioritizing the desires of particular group over what was previously seen as a reigning universal value (i.e., academic freedom dedicated to keeping the free flow of ideas unimpeded, regardless of politics).

But unless ASA is the only organization that is allowed to follow this new rule, why can’t a consortium of colleges and universities declare ASA a bigoted organization and ban them from campuses?  Why can’t legislators punish those who give the organization funds?  Why can’t the University of Illinois rescind someone’s contract over controversial tweets?  After all, if academic freedom must now take a back seat to someone’s political likes and dislikes, who gets to decide which “someones” and what “likes/dislikes” can be included under that rule?

I don’t know if it is confusion or just the usual BDS preference for avoiding difficult questions that causes them to break into the “Don’t tell me I have to condemn Saudi Arabia before I start in on Israel!” argument (even if Saudi Arabia was never mentioned).  For it’s very possible that they don’t understand the implication of the Dialectical Imperative for the simple reason that most people don’t study Kant (or philosophy in general) any longer.

Which is a pity since it can provide quite a bit of guidance in this particular situation.  For the article that got me thinking about this issue talked about how European academics were shunning Ariel University due to its location on what some consider “occupied territory” even as those same Europeans gleefully build relationships with schools on Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

For the boycott proponent, this observation simply boils down to: “Now you’re telling me I have to protest Turkey and I just told you I get to choose where I direct my moral/political wrath!!!”  But for those who subscribe to a Dialectical Imperative, the choice is really between two universal principles: one which embraces what we generally think of as academic freedom which says that the free flow of research, inquiry and learning should never be interrupted (even between nations in a state of war) and a different universal principle which says that this unfettered exchange of ideas that defines academic freedom can be put aside if politics (anyone’s politics) dictates.

Given a choice between these two universals, I know where I would cast my lot.


3 Responses to Consistency

  1. Dean Olson November 20, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    Greetings friend!

    Just wanted to share with you I support the BDS, just as I support world sanctions against Russia for being complicit in shooting down a civilian airliner. All kind of feathers get ruffled with Russia, once again, making incursions onto other people’s land.

    So too with Palestine. Except there, Israel has been doing it since 1948,then massively again in 1967. BDS is because our Congress does not have balls but prefers to march in lockstep and cowtow to anything Israel wants support on. Enoughs enough.

    BDS targets producst produced mainly in the settlements, which are illegal by most of the world’s standards, except Israel. Why, come to think of it, it also gets a tsss, tsss from the White House and present State Department.

    BDS backs up it’s unacceptance of what Israel is doing as an Occupier, which our White House has not done (at least to date).

    The same thing with stopping your container ships from coming into our American ports. If Israel insists on blocking Gaza (air,sea and land), so we’ll block Israel at our ports. Sounds fair to me.

    Because it is disgusting (to me) the billions of dollars we give to Israel (basically supporting what Israel is doing) and immoral (and illegal) how we arm Israel with the latest weapons, which they turn around and use on civilians (naturally, not Israelis).

    Also, because I believe Israel has no intent (let alone no incentive) to work for peace. All their actions, for me, demonstrate their intent to take over as much of the pie as they can, while shoving out (or killing) as many Palestinians as they can.

    I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. This is why I enthusiastically support the BDS. To me it is a healthy form of nonviolent action against a robust aggressor.

    And, you comments about ISIS. And Saudia Arabia. I concur, they are disgusting in how their inhuman treatment of fellow human beings.

    Because that is the bottom line: it has nothing to do with skin color, or race, or religion. It only has to do with what happens when one group of people do not acknowledge the humanity and dignity and right to exist of all other humans. Your are right, you don’t have to look very far to see all the other countries that trample on human rights (besides Israel). Why, even right here in the good old USofA.

    • DivestThis November 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      And I fully support your right to have strong political opinions and act on them, just as I hope you support my right to hold opinions that are diametrically opposed to yours and participate in political activity designed to thwart the BDS project since I hold it in contempt with the same vehemence in which you embrace it as an act of virtue.

      But for purposes of this discussion (which I’ll admit is abstract in this particular post), the question is whether a principle (notably the traditional interpretation of academic freedom which says the free flow of ideas between scholars should remain unhindered, regardless of politics) should be superseded by a new principle that says certain political issues are so important that the traditional view of academic freedom can take a back seat to them.

      The best way to think about this is if someone felt, like you, that Russia is “complicit in shooting down a civilian airliner” or that Saudi Arabia is “disgusting in how their inhuman treatment of fellow human beings” then is it appropriate to start an academic boycott of Russian and Saudi institutions of higher learning?

      If yes, that would make the new principle noted above (that politics CAN trump academic freedom) the new rule that supersedes an older one (that academic freedom should be independent of politics – even for nations whose governments OR academics might participate in controversial or even loathsome activity). And if you embrace this new principle, that simply means that we are on opposite sides of that question since my belief is that academic freedom should be free from such politics (whether those politics agree or disagree with my own).

      But if the answer is “No” (that academic freedom should not be constrained for political reasons), then we need to understand why a new principle that says it should must only apply to one nation’s academics (Israel’s – although probably just the Jewish Israelis), other than the fact that the enemies of that nation have the power and will to push their BDS program while other suffering people (Russians, Saudis, etc.) do not.

    • Tuvea November 23, 2014 at 1:29 am #


      If you really are disgusted with the use of your dollars you should protest by not paying your taxes.

      Henry David Thoreau did so when he was similarly disgusted with slavery and the Mexican-American war.

      Unless you are actually willing to sacrifice in some manner for your cause, I can only find your supposed support of it to be, well, only a source of laughter.

      Writing responses to blog posts is not a sacrifice.

      Saying you are not going to buy certain products you would not purchase anyway is not a sacrifice.

      Which is why when those who do not shop at Wal-Mart or Hobby Lobby say they will boycott those places thoughtful
      people find that to be highly amusing.

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