Last Wednesday, Columbia University assistant professor Nicholas DeGenova told the audience at a faculty-led antiwar teach-in that he wished “for a million Mogadishus” to visit U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. By Sunday evening, DeGenova, who works in Columbia’s anthropology department, was under intense pressure to retract those comments, and Columbia University administrators were under similar pressure to discipline the professor.
“U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy,” DeGenova also told the crowd, gathered in the rotunda of Columbia’s famous Low Library. “U.S. flags are the emblem of the invading war machine in Iraq today. They are the emblem of the occupying power. The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military.”
DeGenova’s comments sparked outrage among Columbia alumni, many of whom called DeGenova’s office, as well as the office of University President Lee Bollinger. On Saturday evening, after DeGenova’s comments had been printed in the New York Times, Bollinger released a statement on the Columbia website. In the statement, Bollinger said that he was “shocked’ at DeGenova’s comments and that “because tradition of academic freedom, I normally don’t comment about statements made by faculty members. However, this one crosses the line and I really feel the need to say something.”
Historian Alan Brinkley, who was on the same panel as DeGenova at the teach-in, also denounced the anthropology professor’s comments. “I had never met or even heard of Prof. DeGenova until he spoke that night, and I was appalled by what he said, and ashamed to be on the same platform with him,” Brinkley said. “I certainly defend his right to say whatever he wishes, but the rest of us have an equal right to disassociate ourselves from his abhorrent remarks.” Professor Eric Foner, who helped organize the teach-in, told Newsday that DeGenova’s comments were “idiotic.”
DeGenova did not return requests for an interview. But in a letter sent to the editors of the Columbia Daily Spectator, DeGenova refused to retract his statements and insisted that his remarks were taken out of context.
Here are the key portions of the letter, which was scheduled to appear in Monday’s Spectator:
I … affirmed that Iraqi liberation can only be effected by the Iraqi people themselves, both by resisting and defeating the U.S. invasion as well as overthrowing a regime whose brutality was long sustained by none than the U.S. Such an anti-colonial struggle for self-determination might involve a million Mogadishus now [italics added], but would ultimately have to become something more like another Vietnam. Vietnam was a stunning defeat for U.S. imperialism; as such, it was also a victory for the cause of human self-determination.
DeGenova’s message is muddled: “I was only calling for a million Mogadishus now,” he seems to say, “but later we should hope that U.S. troops become broiled in a Vietnam-esque quagmire.” Chances are that won’t be enough to silence DeGenova’s critics.
As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has noted, Wednesday wasn’t the first time that DeGenova has caused a stir with inflammatory statements. During a rally last year to protest Israeli occupation of the West Bank, DeGenova said that “The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust. The heritage of the oppressed belongs to the oppressed — not the oppressor.”
Once again, DeGenova responded to the public outcry over his idea that Israelis have no “claim” to the history of Holocaust by writing a letter to the Columbia Daily Spectator. And once again, DeGenova accused the Spectator of taking words out of context. But just as in the Mogadishu case, DeGenova’s letter only confirms his original position:
I do not doubt that my position would be inflammatory for Zionists, in any case. But it is important that my point be clear: the state of Israel’s ruthless oppression of the Palestinian people has disqualified any of its pretenses to be the legitimate inheritor of the immense suffering of the Jewish people under the heel of Nazi oppression. [Again, italics added.]
Who is Nicholas DeGenova? Educated at the University of Chicago, DeGenova briefly taught at Stanford before coming to Columbia. At Columbia, DeGenova has taught classes in the anthropology and Latino-studies departments, where his research focuses on “transnational urban conjunctural spaces that link the U.S. and Latin America as a standpoint of critique from which to interrogate U.S. nationalism, political economy, racialized citizenship, and immigration law,” according to the anthropology department’s website.
Sources inside the administration said that it is unlikely that DeGenova will be fired, or even formally disciplined, for his comments on Wednesday. Bollinger’s statement, as well as the statements by professors Brinkley and Foner, suggests that while DeGenova’s ability to speak his mind will be respected, it will also be incumbent on others associated with the university to denounce his statements.
There are three elements of the DeGenova story so far that deserve comment. First, it’s worth noting that only a few professors — notably Eric Foner and Gerald Neuman — distanced themselves from DeGenova’s remarks during the teach-in. Other members of the Columbia faculty and administration said nothing until after the story hit the major news wires and the conservative press on Friday. While Newsday reported that DeGenova’s death-wish was met with silence from the audience, it is not absurd to ask why he wasn’t booed off the stage as soon as he called for American soldiers to be dragged through the streets of Baghdad.
Second, the response to DeGenova’s comments so far has taken place on an individual level. Columbia administrators have not decided to collectively rebuke DeGenova’s remarks, probably due to concerns that the administration would be accused of trampling on the professor’s free speech.
But the administration would not be acting inappropriately if it decided to sanction DeGenova; since 9/11, there have been a host of instances where professors — on both the Left and the Right — were disciplined for making what were seen as offensive remarks, notably University of New Mexico history professor Richard Berthold and Johns Hopkins professor Charles Fairbanks. (Berthold became infamous for telling a class that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” Charles Fairbanks was fired from his position as the director of Hopkins’s Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Central Asia-Caucasus Institute for saying that he’d “bet anyone … a Koran” that the United States would be unable to find Osama bin Laden.)
The third important element of the DeGenova story is that once the denunciations of the professor did begin, they were not met with any support for DeGenova. One can take comfort in the fact that DeGenova’s position is a marginal one. While the war is still young, the antiwar movement has not reached the fever pitch where actively hoping for the death of U.S. soldiers is a tolerated “antiwar” position. Indeed, recent polling by the Columbia Daily Spectator shows that Columbia undergraduates are evenly divided on the question of whether war in Iraq is necessary. The main consequence of DeGenova’s remarks, it seems, will be to marginalize the antiwar movement on campus.
Based on his past record of sticking his foot in his mouth, there’s no doubt that at some point in the future, DeGenova will say something equally outrageous as his comments last Wednesday. Which means that while Columbia might not discipline or fire Professor Mogadishu immediately, once DeGenova comes up for tenure, the university might decide that he is more trouble than he’s worth.
— Matthew Continetti is an undergraduate at Columbia University.