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US campus protests: Hillary Clinton fails to grasp the moral power of this turning tide

The former secretary of state accuses today's youth of not understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is a symptom of her limited imperial imagination
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pictured in Washington, DC, on 26 September 2023 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pictured in Washington, DC, on 26 September 2023 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The former first lady, presidential candidate and US secretary of state, and now Professor Hillary Clinton, recently went out of her way to accuse Columbia students and others protesting the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in their homeland of historical ignorance.  

“I have had many conversations … with a lot of young people over the last many months now,” Clinton said on MSNBC last month. “They don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East, or frankly about history, in many areas of the world, including in our own country.”  

How should we gauge Clinton’s assessment of students in the very same university where she is now teaching as a “professor of practice”

Clinton was on the US network to promote a new musical she has produced, Suffs, about American suffragists and their fight for voting rights.  

Even before she became a Broadway musical producer, Clinton had a long and distinguished career in what is euphemistically called “public service” in this country, which might seem to justify her capacity to pass such harsh and categorical judgements on younger Americans now risking their lives and livelihoods to protest the state’s active engagement in a colossal genocide halfway around the globe.  

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It is, of course, not fair to single out Clinton in a deeply corrupt political culture, but she is a leading Zionist in American politics. 

So exposing genocidal Zionism, as these students are doing, for what it is and what it has always been - and what it is doing right now - does not sit well with the former secretary of state, who is known in the US for “never seeing a war she did not like”.

Record of warmongering

Clinton was a highly active first lady when her husband was president (1993-2001), advocating for various worthy causes. Twice, she was a serious presidential contender, once against Barack Obama during Democratic primaries, and once against Donald Trump in general elections - and she served as her country’s top diplomat under Obama.

In 2023, she became a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She has also authored a number of popular books, including her memoirs Living History (2003), Hard Choices (2014) and What Happened (2017).  

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Thus, her considered judgment, expressed publicly, about our students protesting their university’s financial investments in a genocidal, settler-colonial state cannot be readily dismissed. We need to consider the matter more carefully, especially since Clinton herself once threatened to “totally obliterateIran, a country of some 80 million human beings, if it came anywhere near Israel.  

Clinton’s active Zionist record notwithstanding, why would she, with all her erudition and achievements, dismiss an entire generation of American students, alongside their parents and teachers, as ignorant?

Who is ignorant: someone trapped inside a self-serving body of ideological convictions, or someone liberated from such limitations?  

Let us put her own sustained record of warmongering on the table: there is a reason she is known as “Hillary the Hawk”.

From Iraq in 2002, to Pakistan throughout the Obama years, to Afghanistan in 2009, to Libya in 2011, to Syria in 2012, she is proven and documented to have been a consistently wild warmonger, promoting American military domination around the globe. Her vast erudition and knowledge are of the sort that when push comes to shove, and she is in a position of power, she opts to drop bombs on people rather than reason with them.  

During her MSNBC interview, Clinton referenced the Israel-Palestine deal that “my husband” (her phrase) backed in 2000, and that, by her estimation, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down because he was afraid he would be killed, as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated after signing a peace treaty with Israel.

From this false premise, she then targeted protesting students and teachers: “Propaganda is not education.” Indeed! But who is doing the propagandising on MSNBC - Clinton, or any of the students at Columbia and other campuses?    

Closed-circuit system

The form of knowledge that Clinton exudes is a closed-circuit system. It just talks to itself. It is her husband who wanted to make peace and the Palestinians who thwarted the process. The Clintons are reasonable and fair, and their opponents are “terrorist Islamists”. 

This is the sort of self-indulgent knowledge with which leading American politicians humour themselves. They dislike these protesting students, because they have punctured that false pretence.  

The students know this history, but they also have access to additional archives that Clinton seems to lack. So who is ignorant: someone trapped inside a self-serving body of ideological convictions, or someone liberated from such limitations?  

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What stands between the two sides Clinton manufactures are the Palestinian people themselves - along with their thoughts, convictions and sufferings. Clinton blames professors for indoctrinating students with propaganda instead of teaching them. Which ones, exactly: Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, Lila Abu-Lughod, Wael Hallaq, Nadia Abu El Haj - or before them all, the late Edward Said? Except for Said, these are all now Clinton’s own colleagues at Columbia. Has she ever bothered to talk with them?  

The closed-circuit knowledge from which Clinton speaks and accuses these students is incurably monolingual, unlike many of the protesters she criticises, who are fluent in various languages. 

This pathologically monolingual limitation, of course, is not Clinton’s fault. This malady is endemic to the entirety of the American foreign policy establishment. And while Clinton is a well-read, well-spoken, intelligent and articulate person - who next to Trump, looks like a descendant of Christine de Pizan or Mary Wollstonecraft - this is all part of an imperial loop, hermetically sealed to the miseries of the outside world that she and her ilk have been instrumental in creating.   

In her limited imperial imagination, the Israelis are the rich friend and the Palestinians the poor enemy. The students occupying university campuses, who look like a nuisance to her, have brought their broader knowledge right to her office window at Columbia. She appears woefully unaware of the moral power of this turning tide. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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