Chicago. Fig. These are titles of two books by the photographic team of Adam Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin. “Chicago” is the name of a cardboard and junk city in the Negev used to train Israeli and US soldiers in milieus that simulate Gaza or a refugee camp. “Fig” includes images of pine forests that have been planted across Israel in previously occupied territory. These are painful, contested stories, with flashes of heat from all sides.
It leads me to wonder about the best way to discuss these hotly-debated, deeply-felt issues. If not at a university, then where? Where might respectful exchanges of opinions best unfold, even if the only common ground is that a setting for exchange is important? I think every institution is political, in the sense that power relationships are unequal within them and people’s priorities are skewed by those power relationships. I am worried about the continued (and increasing?) polarization of the university, where “toxic” becomes not just descriptive of the physical environment but of the intellectual one as well. Most recently, the establishment of an endowment fund at the University of Illinois, the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund, and its close connection to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), has sparked debate locally, with all sides jockeying for positions for and against, but the opportunities for teaching each other about the real difficulties of living together on the planet seem to be completely forgotten. People rightly are concerned about “mission creep”–another term reminiscent of toxic dispersal–but is it possible to debate the mission(s) before jumping on board or not? My initial reaction to ACTA is that they say their mission is “academic reform,” but that that is a smokescreen for a completely different mission, which is the imposition of their ideology. NOT, repeat NOT, that this is only a strategy of the right, but given the dominance of the right, it seems hollow to claim their beleaguered stance. And, the website of their ally, the National Association of Scholars, is really ugly to boot.