Thursday, March 9, 2017

Quixotic Quest for Political Purity

I have written before about the dangers of seeking "purity" in public life - that is, of trying to dissociate one's self in all ways from things one disagrees with. This is as true about politics as it is about religion or any other belief system.

In this light, I read with a combination of amusement and concern this latest effort at "purity" of a particular political viewpoint by members of the NY State Senate:
New York Senate Passes Anti-BDS Bills
The idea here is that, if you work as a faculty member at any public university in New York (there are some 64 SUNY campuses, plus the CUNY system) you would not be able to use university funds to, say, travel to the conference of an organization that has passed a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) resolution with regards to Israel.

Now, whether I agree with BDS efforts or not is irrelevant here (I'm not a fan, mostly on practical grounds). I am a member of scholarly organizations that have, at times, debated such resolutions. If one of these organizations were to pass such a resolution, and I worked in NY, what is the purpose of forbidding me from attending its scholarly conferences? All that does is punish the faculty, who now no longer have access to the means of sharing their work with the scholarly community, whether those faculty supported the symbolic BDS resolution or not.

The notion that allowing such a faculty member to use professional development funds to travel to such a conference constitutes the state "funding attacks against Israel or supporting hate", or that a conference appearance would be "inappropriate and offensive", suggests that the sponsors of this legislation are trying to purify the world according to their own world views. People disagree, about Israel and a great many other things. If you find such disagreement offensive, I'm not sure it's the world that needs to change.

This is, of course, a symptom of the deeper tribalist instincts of American politics, instincts that have been much emboldened of late. This is another example of a Politics of Force - an attempt to impose one's own worldview of everyone else, in this case on an issue that is purely symbolic and which has no direct practical significance. BDS resolutions by academic associations will not change Israel's behavior; withholding New York State funding from scholars seeking to attend those associations' conferences won't change theirs either.

As I have argued before, this is the real battle for the soul of American politics - not which side of this or that issue you fall on, but what kind of politics we want to have. If we opt for a politics of force, we doom ourselves to endless conflict and, likely, violence. This is the Trumpian zero-sum view of the world, and it leaves everybody worse off. Our alternative is to learn to live with differences even as we debate them, which means we have to become a little less comfortable with our own righteousness and a little more willing to engage in contact with the "impure".

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