Friday, April 30, 2010

Just Plain Fools: SJP Opts for Second Life in the Fantasy World

The appearance of Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine's promotional film reminds me that I need to do a follow-up on an earlier post.

Every year around this season, I face a dilemma: should I try to concoct some sort of April Fool's spoof news, whether deliberately deceptive or patently preposterous? It's a busy time of year: the end of the semester is coming into sight, mid-term papers pile up, taxes nag and beckon. Usually, I therefore don't get around to the task. Fortunately, this year and last, Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine came to my rescue by producing absurdities of the sort that I could not have dreamed up by myself.

This time, our college newspaper, the Climax, for some reason chose its April 1 issue in which to run a story on "Divestment: A year later." It was bizarre in several regards: (1) The College never divested from any holdings because of their alleged association with the Israeli Occupation ("O": remember to hold down that shift key!) of Palestine; (2) the actual anniversary of the non-event occurred in February; (3) the story appeared in an insert that bore the earnest statement, "The articles on the preceding four pages are meant to be taken seriously. The others are not."

Oh, really?

Let's consider what the article says: Although the typographically challenged piece does cite the administration view (including remarks by the President deploring the uncivil atmosphere on campus), the title seems to take the non-event as a fact ("Divestment: A year later") and the body of the text most prominently features an array of statements by SJP members insisting that their version alone is true, e.g. "We always say divestment is a statement and the statement was made. Whatever the administration says, we know what happened."

Yes, and I'm Napoleon. It must be nice to be able to live in the reality of your own choosing—except, of course, to the extent that it just underscores to others the fact that you're a total loser in the only game that we know. The divestment movement's desperate attempt to parlay defeat after abject defeat into a string of glorious victories reminds me of nothing so much as the bitterly cynical definitions of the online game, "Second Life," in the Urban Dictionary.

In any case, that stock refrain about the "statement" is starting to wear a bit thin for those of us stuck here on planet reality. It was on the banner that appeared on the anniversary of the non-event back in February, itself echoing the placards of 2009.

The obscure(d) message seems fortuitous. Did HSJP perhaps mean to say that divestment was a "state of mind" rather than a "statement"? That would certainly be more in line with the facts. If divestment indeed occurred, then why the insistent need to proclaim that it was "a statement" in 2009 and "still [!] is a statement" in 2010? Does an action taken by an official body not speak for itself?

Aye, there's the rub: no such action took place. Bummer, again, heroic activist dudes. When Hampshire College proudly and honorably divested from its holdings in South Africa a generation ago, there was never any doubt at the time—not to mention, a year later: The administration explicitly announced the step. In this case, it flatly denies it. (And, last I checked, only the administration has the right to represent official College policy to the public.)

It's easy to explain the difference:

If I sell my shares in Chrysler because I think it's a badly-run company that does not serve its stockholders, it's technically "true" that I have "relinquished" (to use the language of another recent student flier) my investment in a particular firm that profits from our irresponsible reliance on fossil fuels, but I have hardly "divested" myself—as a conscious and political statement (which is the only practical meaning that "divestment" can have in this context)—of participation in the carbon-based economy: especially if I continue to hold stock in Ford, Toyota, and Mobil. Simple enough, one would think.

Paradoxically and unfortunately, then, the HSJP-ers are thus forced to resort to the same logic that their nemesis, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, employed to criticize the actions of their own movement as antisemitic: in effect if not intent.

Ouch. It's what we academics like to call: irony.

By so insistently focusing on the "statement," the HSJP-ers are attempting to divert our attention from the (non-)action itself—but in fact inadvertently calling attention to it. If the action indeed took place, why does the College refuse to acknowledge it? If the act was indeed so significant, why were there no consequences, why has no one followed the revolutionary leader?

Allow me to translate and simplify still further:
• an action can indeed be a statement
• this alleged action never took place
• thus, the (non-)action cannot have been a "statement"
• to state that an action occurred when it in fact did not: well, that's just a lie.

got that?

[note: because the online version of the newspaper is not available, I have uploaded a scan of the article after the original post]

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