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Taking Political Differences Seriously

Why I Did Not Protest John Yoo at the APSA Meetings

I am a political scientist. I oppose torture. I take very seriously questions of professional ethics, and I have publicly supported the view that professional associations such as APSA ought to support human rights abroad but also in the US, a position I first articulated in a September 2004 article entitled “Social Science and Liberal Values in a Time of War.”

But I did not protest John Yoo’s presence at this year’s APSA meeting in San Francisco, and the reason why is simple: I believe the protest was misplaced and also advanced a principle that I find disturbing and cannot support.

Let me be clear: I did not and do not “oppose” the protest, and I admire many of the protesters, and indeed count many among my friends. But I did not join in. A number of the protest organizers made statements at the time suggesting that anyone serious about torture, human rights or professional integrity would have joined in, and that those who refrained were in one way or another complicit in torture and perhaps even complicit in Trumpism. I am very skeptical that the APSA protest had any substantial effect on the practice of torture anywhere, even if it was covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition, I am inclined to believe that the time to protest John Yoo was the time when he served in government, and that little is to be accomplished by protesting him now (and while I acknowledge the links between the Bush “war on terror” and Trumpism, I also note that Yoo has been a public critic of Trump, and indeed published a February New York Times op ed piece entitled “Executive Power Run Amok.” This might be ironic. It is also true that political scientists ought to take such political differences seriously. Many supporters of Bush and his “war on terror” oppose Trump. This matters.) At the same time, I respect those colleagues who thought differently. While their tactics of protest pressed the limits of what might be called “professional collegiality,” they did not substantially disturb those limits (in my opinion Yoo’s obnoxious panel comments about the protesters, which referenced “open carry,” and thus implied a threat, however “joking,” were much more disturbing). And even if they had, there are values more important than “collegiality.” I agree with Jodi Dean and Paul Passavant that such tactics of protest are justifiable in principle, and that even if one believes in the importance of persuasion, such protests are sometimes necessary as part of the broader process of persuasion.

It was not the tactic of the protest that caused me to abstain, though I will confess that I am personally disinclined to participate in disruptions of academic speakers, even when the disruptions are relatively silent and “civil,” as the protests of Yoo appear to have been. It was, at the margins, the timing: John Yoo is “low-hanging fruit” for those who wish to seriously agitate for a more responsible and just professional association, and protesting him now, a decade after his time in government, seemed questionable to me. But it was, more centrally, the venue and the principle behind the protest that troubled me. The venue was not a governmental office, or even a university or other public setting. It was a professional conference. The protestors were expressing outrage that John Yoo could be “given a platform,” and thus a kind of support, by APSA. And they articulated the idea that if APSA had integrity, then Yoo would have no such “platform” — that the standards of professional ethics, and the procedures for organizing annual meetings, would make it impossible for John Yoo, and others like him, to speak.

I find this problematic.

The basic reason is simple: there are political scientists who share Yoo’s views on the US Constitution, and on other aspects of the so-called “war on terror.” This should come as no surprise. Indeed, as many of the protesters well know, there is a rather substantial body of literature in political theory on the themes of “just war” and “dirty hands.” There are indeed many people on the left who have argued that in certain circumstances it is justifiable to repress, detain, attack, or even kill “enemies.” I would be very loath to support prohibiting anyone who holds these views from participating in APSA. I would not expect groups like Caucus for a New Political Science or the Socialist Scholar’s Conference to welcome people like Yoo. But APSA is a professional and not a politically-defined scholarly organization, and a ban on Yoo would also likely be a ban on all of those who have publicly expressed similar views and certainly on all of those who wish to interact with him or to hear him speak because they consider his views important. I have little regard for such people. I would never invite Yoo to participate on any panel I might organize. I would not agree to participate on a panel with him. He is intellectually and personally distasteful to me. But I cannot support the claim that his “torture memos” — his reprehensible legal briefs justifying what he called “enhanced interrogation” — constitute a reason to prevent him from participating on an APSA panel if a group of APSA political scientists, or an organized or affiliated section of APSA, choose to invite him.

I would feel differently if APSA were to bestow a public service award on Yoo, or in some other way to honor him as an association. But for APSA to allow him to be a participant on a panel organized by its members seems completely consistent with the professional purpose of APSA. And that does not constitute “giving him a platform.” It simply involves allowing an affiliated group the right held by all affiliated groups, to organize some panels as they choose.

I confess, if I believed that Yoo were literally the modern-day equivalent of Eichmann, then I might feel differently. But I do not believe this, just as I do not believe that the contemporary US government is a totalitarian dictatorship, or that the “war on terror” is a form of genocide, even though I acknowledge its harms. I strongly disagree with Yoo. I object morally and politically to what he has done. But I doubt that he is a “war criminal,” in the same way that I doubt that the authors of The Pentagon Papers, or others involved in justifying or supporting the Vietnam War, or other destructive and murderous wars, are thus people who committed “war crimes.” Many political scientists worked for Bush II, or Bush I, or Nixon, or Clinton, or Obama, and were involved in planning or justifying things that might be considered morally objectionable. Does the articulation of objectionable views about the Constitution constitute a form of criminal malfeasance equivalent to psychologists — or physicians or perhaps even political scientists — who actually participate in the torture of individuals? Where do we draw the line?

Dean and Passavant write that the protests were linked to “getting measures passed at the APSA business meeting that would instruct and enable the ethics committee to bring the association’s concern with abuses caused or experienced by political scientists together with its stated commitment to human rights.” That is true, and the effort to raise the issues was a noble one, for which the protesters deserve credit. APSA ought to be much more serious about human rights, academic freedom, and professional responsibility. But the protestors did more than raise the issues. They sought to use the Yoo case to make an argument for the banning of people like Yoo from APSA. I’ve already stated that I consider the logic of this a troubling slippery slope. But it is also seriously politically misguided.

I’ve already pointed out above that while we might be inclined to treat Yoo as a simple miscreant, in fact there are serious scholarly debates about the arguments of his that we might consider most troubling. And these debates are not the province only of supporters of Abu Graib and Gitmo and Islamophobia. “Dirty hands” arguments have been central to contemporary political theory at least since the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom penned powerful and influential essays about the need to deal harshly with “enemies.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror is a classic contribution to this genre. Slavoj Zizek has indeed recently edited a series for Verso seeking to rehabilitate the theme of revolutionary violence (Virtue and Terror: Zizek Presents Robespierre; On Practice and Contradiction: Zizek Presents Mao; Terrorism and Communism: Zizek Presents Trotsky). Dean and Passavant know this better than most. For Dean is a very public admirer of Zizek and an advocate for a revival of Lenin and of a new type of Communist party. I strongly disagree with her about these things and have explained why in print. But that is not my point. My point, rather, is that the demand that APSA codify respect for human rights might be more complicated than the protestors realize, and might in fact damn some of them in the same way it damns Yoo. Among the leaders of the protestors, some have been quite vocal in their effort to legitimize certain texts, and practices, that many might reasonably consider to be complicit in tyranny. And we don’t need to look back to the Jacobin “terror” or Lenin or Trotsky during the period of Civil War Communism or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. We can look no further than the practices of the late Hugo Chavez or his successor, Nicolas Maduro. Should APSA’s human rights guidelines also proscribe scholars who extol the Castro regime in Cuba, or the “Bolivaran Revolution” in Venezuela? Those regimes imprison and torture dissenters. Are supporters of those regimes or sympathizers of their ideas to be considered supporters of torture whose scholarly credentials should be impugned?

This is a very dangerous road on which to travel.

I do not favor it.

I do favor more serious consideration of the ethical and professional ethical issues at stake, and a more vigorous discussion within the political science profession about the many challenges to professional integrity we currently face.

But I doubt that protests and bans are the answer for professional associations such as APSA, or for colleagues who wish to participate seriously in the ongoing governance and reform of such associations. For political science, like most disciplines, is a pluralistic enterprise, in which many perspectives, and indeed fundamental concepts, are “essentially contested.” John Yoo’s legal scholarship, and the official legal opinions this scholarship has produced, are deeply objectionable. The best antidote to Yoo’s shoddy legal scholarship is good legal scholarship. Public protesting of Yoo’s public pronouncements and activities is an eminently democratic activity. I doubt that protesting Yoo’s appearance at an APSA panel will do much to either move public opinion about torture or enlighten or persuade other political scientists about the issue. I can’t object to those who think otherwise. There are many more important things to be concerned about. And one of them is academic freedom, broadly construed. And so while I did not and do not “oppose” such protests because of the “disruption” they cause, I do oppose the idea that the way for professional associations such as APSA to attend to serious concerns about human rights is to create policies that limit the participation of those who subscribe to objectionable views, whether they be views about state torture, revolutionary terror, colonialism, racial reparations, or the legitimacy of “Bolivaran revolution,” “Euromaidan protest,” “Arab Spring,” or “Black Lives Matter.”

I oppose torture. And I oppose John Yoo’s views about torture. But I also oppose the effort to prevent the participation of the John Yoos of the right and of the left from participation in scholarly activity so long as they are acting in their professional capacities. Academic freedom of expression and freedom of association are hardly cures for the injustices of our broader social and political world. But when it comes to the deficiencies and dubious intellectual and ethical choices of colleagues in their professional capacities, there are probably none better. To paraphrase Churchill, they might be problematic. But they are less problematic than the alternatives.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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