[The next-to-last installation of a Monday series profiling Group of 88 members, which has included posts on miriam cooke, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Wahneema Lubiano, Pete Sigal, Grant Farred, Sally Deutsch, Joseph Harris, Paula McClain, Jocelyn Olcott, Irene Silverblatt, Maurice Wallace, Antonio Viego, and Kathy Rudy. The posts examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, delving into the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process. An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control the hiring process. The people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, select new hires.]
Only the African-American Studies (80 percent) and Women’s Studies (72.2 percent) programs had a higher percentage of their members sign the Group of 88’s statement than did the Cultural Anthropology Department, where 60 percent of the professors rushed to judgment last April.
Diane Nelson (B.A., Wellesley, Ph.D., Stanford) is a tenured associate professor in the department. She has published one book— A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincenntenial Guatemala—and lists other forthcoming projects, all from Duke University Press. The book, according to the University of California Press website, asks “Why use a body metaphor? What body is wounded, and how does it react to apparent further torture? If this is the condition of the body politic, how do human bodies relate to it—those literally wounded in thirty-five years of war and those locked in the equivocal embrace of sexual conquest, domestic labor, mestizaje, and social change movements?” The book, the press claims, “has special relevance to ongoing discussions of power, hegemony, and the production of subject positions, as well as gender issues and histories of violence as they relate to postcolonial nation-state formation.”
Nelson has taught such courses as “Cyborgs” (“an introduction to the emerging field of ‘cyborg anthropology’ which . . . melds ethnography, philosophy, film, science fiction, critical studies of science and technology, political economy, and feminist and anti-racist engagements with Big Science”); “Medical Anthropology” (where “ethic, power and the effects of inequality on health will be central, addressing gender, race, and national differentials in health rates; and asking what is the cure for so-called ‘diseases of poverty’?”); and “Cannibal Cultures” (which had “an emphasis on ethnicity/raciology, class, sexuality, and gender”). In other words: Race/Class/Gender: I, II, and III.
Nelson’s fall 2007 course, “Anthropology of Numbers,” deals with the same sorts of themes as her recent lecture, “Who Counts? Reckoning the After/Math of War in Guatemala.” She’s also produced such only-in-academia offerings as “Dispossession and Possession: The Maya, Identi/ties, and ‘Post’ War Guatemala”; “Phantom Limbs and Invisible Hands: Bodies, Prosthetics, and Late Capitalist Identities”; and “A Social Science Fiction of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery: The Calcutta Chromosome, the Colonial Laboratory, and the Postcolonial New Human.” (Nelson is fond of the trendy s/lash style of writing.)
Nelson has been a fixture in fringe protests on campus. In 2003, she walked out of class to protest the Bush administration’s foreign policy. (There’s an easy prep!) She has frequently invoked comparisons with World War II to justify her current foreign policy positions, though she often seemed to get her facts wrong. For instance, in 2003, she urged Chronicle readers to “actively make alternative histories,” as she observed how “massive unprovoked attacks on a sovereign nation, killing soldiers and civilians alike, were carried out by Germany against Poland and Austria.” (She offered the examples as an “analogy” to the U.S. war in Iraq.) Professor emeritus Lawrence Evans responded,
It may be, as Diane Nelson wrote, that we need “to actively make alternative histories.” She’s off to a good start when she asserts that in World War II Germany carried out an unprovoked attack on Austria. In 1938 Austria became part of Germany in a mostly non-violent coup aided by German troops. Austria then fought in WWII as part of Germany. Perhaps Nelson has an alternative story.
A few weeks later, Nelson compared herself to Danes who wore the Star of David in World War II—again taking liberties with the historical record. For someone so concerned with the fate of World War II Jews, she has shown far less concerns for Jews today: she has both signed and publicly endorsed a petition demanding that Duke divest from companies doing business with Israel on defense issues. (The petition made no such demand for divestment regarding companies doing business with any other country, including such nations with poor human rights records as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan.) Former Harvard president Larry Summers termed similar proposals on his campus “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”
In 2004, Nelson broadened her usual Nazi analogy, asserting that “the US in not Berlin 1941, but it bears striking similarities to 1933, and to Santiago, Chile 1973 [when General August Pinochet was about to assume power in a brutal military coup], and Buenos Aires, Argentina 1976, just before those countries descended into dirty wars.”
Nelson has every right to offer such utterances. But surely Duke alums have every right to question how a person who repeatedly makes such intellectually facile comparisons obtained a job at one of the nation’s leading universities?
Nelson has admitted that an ideological imbalance exists among Duke’s humanities faculty. In 2004, she responded the DCU study by asserting:
While there are important differences, we must keep in mind that the Democrats and Republicans show negligible divergence on major domestic and foreign policy issues . . . Given this, I also want to know, where is the diversity? Where are the Greens, Labour, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Communists, the Workers Party, the Black Panthers, Puerto Rican independistas, etc...? Where is the truly wide range of partisan organizing that, across the globe, offers diversity in imagining options for the future?
Imagine if the DCU’s findings had revealed the opposite total among Duke’s humanities faculty (i.e.: 142 registered Republicans, eight registered Democrats). Does anyone believe Nelson would have been so blasé about the findings, perhaps speculating that the real problem was that Duke lacked a sufficient number of Fascists, clericalists, and monarchists?
Shortly before the lacrosse party, Nelson was back in the news, this time for heckling David Horowitz when the conservative speaker came to campus. Pratt student Ben Grant had an appropriate response:
It’s one thing to disagree with Horowitz; I certainly do as do many others. It’s another thing altogether to attend a University as esteemed as Duke and not be able to get to hear every side of every issue. The immature behavior of Nelson and her comrades was absolutely astounding to me and many of my friends. Interrupting while Horowitz was speaking, not allowing his voice to be heard and making a mockery of the concept of free speech—I truly am astounded these are professors at the school that I love and attend . . . I speak for myself and many of my friends when I say that it was truly embarrassing to Duke as a collective body of mature, free-thinking adults to witness a professor act in such a juvenile, unprofessional manner.
Even though Nelson’s behavior contradicted provisions of the Faculty Handbook, she does not seem to have experienced any disciplinary action.
In the lacrosse affair, Nelson was one of five Group members to speak at the “Shut Up and Teach” forum. The Chronicle’s Naureen Khan described Nelson’s presentation:
To demonstrate the importance of articulating one’s views and connecting with the public, Nelson passed around string that linked members of the audience to one another. As she spoke of repression, she hacked off the connecting string to emphasize how such actions cut people off from one another.
While kindergarten teachers nationally doubtless use such stratagems, college professors might be expected to produce something a little more substantive.
A few weeks later, Nelson and Group member Pedro Lasch complained to the Chronicle that the Group had been victims of a “conspiracy.” Peopled by whom? Orchestrated by whom? For what purpose? Through what tactics?
Nelson supplied no details—perhaps in keeping with her preference for professors “actively mak[ing] alternative histories.” Facts, after all, can be inconvenient things.
Nelson’s colleague, Rebecca Stein, also signed both the Group statement and the “clarifying” letter. She is author of the forthcoming Itineraries in Conflict: The Political Life of Tourism in Israel and the Middle East. A critic of “dominant Jewish Israeli popular culture” (which, she argued in a 2000 essay, “has sought to defend the cultural integrity of Israel, to shore up its Jewishness and to preserve the fantasy of a Euro-Jewish nation-state”), Stein has championed alternative conceptions of culture in the area.
Stein has especially celebrated the “resistive work” of Israeli Arab rap and hip-hop artists Dam and MWR—who, she asserted, highlighted issues of “Israeli-Jewish racism.”
In a 2004 article, in what she herself conceded was a “polemic,” Stein and a colleague lamented the “marginalization of culture in radical scholarship on Palestine and Israel.” The goal of their efforts, they wrote, is “to broaden understanding of the terrain of power in Palestine and Israel and thereby the possible arenas and modalities of struggle.” The duo praised efforts of British scholars to “rethink classical Marxist paradigms and analytics with a view toward expending the terrain of what constitutes power and struggle.”
Though Stein has spent a lot of time talking about “culture,” she has shown little interest in examining how “culture” is passed down to schoolchildren in the Palestinian territories. (Indoctrination by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, of course, would be very difficult to blame on “Israeli-Jewish racism.”) Instead, she is interested in challenging the “dominant map of the nation-state, historically predicated on forced Palestinian absence—materially from their land, and figuratively from official Israeli histories and public discourses.”
To interject: Stein (commenting on her area of academic specialty) was describing a state in which Israeli Arab citizens have full voting rights (12 currently serve in the 120-member Knesset, including the Knesset speaker and the minister without portfolio in Ehud Olmert’s government). Israeli Arabs also have the right to own land and considerable autonomy over the education of their children. And, of course, this is a state in which the Israeli Arab rap and hip-hop artists whose work Stein considers so important have freedom to perform.
Stein also has critiqued what she termed in 2004 the “pervasive fear (real and imagined) of random Palestinian violence” in Ariel Sharon’s Israel. In the essay, she did not precisely define what she meant by the term “imagined” fear, but she addressed the issue in a 2005 interview. Scholars have debated what caused the start of the second “intifada” and the demise of the Oslo peace process: some have blamed provocative actions by Ariel Sharon; others have pointed to Yasir Arafat’s willingness to tolerate (or even encourage) suicide-murder attacks against Israeli civilians. Stein suggested a third explanation . . . Israeli (Jewish) racism.
It’s worth noting that, at the time of her writing, Palestinian militant groups had an official policy of “random” violence—targeting civilian non-combatants, and especially women and children—through suicide-murder attacks. Between 2000 and 2005, there were 147 terrorist attacks in Israel, killing more than 800 Israeli civilians, including 119 minors. To Stein, these actions produced a "radical shift to the right" in Israel. In fact, of course, Ariel Sharon governed largely from the center, so much so that his actions splintered the conservative Likud Party and the creation of a new centrist party, Kadima. Stein's listeners never would have known.
Stein has taught courses such as “Space, Place, and Power” (in which “we will pay particular attention to issues of gender, class, sexuality, and race and the situated political and historical contexts of space and space-making”); and “Travel, Gender, and Power” (which addressed such politically correct questions as “What is the relationship between gender, travel, and power? Can travel be a subversive act? . . . And how do issues of race, class, and sexuality complicate these questions? . . . We will take tourism as our lens to investigate the relationship between globalization and mobility, sex and power, ‘authenticity’ and commodification . . . to build a critical discussion about gender and mobility”).
Stein also has sponsored a House course called “Nonviolent Activism in Israel & Palestine,” which explored such issues as “What is ‘creative extremism?’” and “When is violence justified?”
Stein made quite clear her approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict in 2004, when she was the only Duke professor to be on the announced pre-conference schedule for the Palestine Solidarity Movement’s conference on the Duke campus.*
The PSM opposes what it terms the “racist and apartheid” state of Israel, and has declined calls to criticize suicide-murder attacks, noting that “as a solidarity movement, it is not our place to dictate the strategies or tactics adopted by the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation.” PSM conferences have passed resolutions affirming that “Zionism is racism” and declaring “solidarity with the popular resistance to Israeli occupation, colonization, and apartheid.” The organizer of the Duke conference, Rann Bar-on—who later co-founded the potbangers’ organization in the lacrosse case—declined, when pressed, to criticize Palestinian suicide-murder attacks.
Asked to comment on the PSM’s stated positions, Stein demurred, telling the Chronicle, “The charge of terrorism has been a genuine distraction from the issues.” The Stein-sponsored House course assigned 20 pages of “field reports” from the PSM’s parent organization, the International Solidarity Movement.
As with Nelson’s peculiar invocations of history, Stein had every right to present at the PSM conference, even if she exercised questionable judgment by doing so. But imagine the (appropriate) outrage from Duke alums or from Stein’s colleagues if she had presented at, say, a high-profile conference organized by the KKK, or by Operation Rescue.
One thing can be sure: such a professor would not have attracted the support of her politically correct colleagues. Yet, in this case, to rebut criticism about the PSM affair, Diane Nelson and (of course . . .) Wahneema Lubiano created the Duke Radical Action Group, which the Chronicle reported took “a position of strong support for the conference.”
Lubiano described the group’s aim: “This summer Diane Nelson and I thought: ‘Why don’t we try to hone a larger group of people who have political interests and want to be engaged in both support of student actives and from our own vantage points?’”
The remark rather sounds like the mindset that created the Group of 88. Indeed, Stein and Nelson were two of the most easily predicted signatories of the statement.
The Cultural Anthropology Department also houses such Group members as Ralph Litzinger and Anne Allison (“Group of 88 for Credit”); “clarifying” professor Charlie Piot, who in February stated that the Group of 88’s blog critics should “shut up”; and anti-lacrosse extremist Orin Starn. Starn sought to exploit the case to forward his agenda of transforming Duke into the Haverford of the Triangle—including by publishing a fall 2006 op-ed that could have been a rough draft of Mike Nifong’s opening statement in a lacrosse trial—even as he privately e-mailed one of the accused students expressing sympathy and offering his support.
With “supporters” like Starn, Nelson, and Stein, why would Duke students need detractors?
*--modified for clarity, taking into account a commenter's recollection of the event