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DUREL, Steven. "Teach Me if You Can: An Interview with David Graeber "
Monday, 21 November 2005
Article published on 8 July 2009
last modification on 16 July 2009

by r-c.
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David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at Yale University. After becoming an activist for the anarchist cause, Graeber received disdain from a few colleagues and was soon informed that his teaching contract would not be renewed. On Nov. 2, I had lunch with Graeber at Yale.

Steven Durel: Professor, it’s probable that Yale’s leadership decided not to renew your contract because you are an acclaimed anarchist scholar and because you have been active with supposedly "subversive" groups on campus. How do you feel? Aren’t you upset?

David Graeber: It’s not really Yale’s leadership so much as the Department of Anthropology and senior faculty who decided to cut me off. For a long time I really tried to avoid getting involved in campus politics. I thought that I had come up with a nice formula, that I would be an activist in New York and simply a scholar here in New Haven.

Generally speaking, the academy really doesn’t care what you say and think or what you write, so long as you don’t do anything. If you’re willing to be a hypocrite, they’re fine with you, whatever you espouse. On the other hand, if there’s any sign that you might actually live by your principles, you’re called a loose cannon—you can see that John McCain is called a loose cannon among Republicans because he actually has principles.

Anyway, I felt that taking on global neoliberalism was probably more important than taking on the administration. So I concentrated my efforts on that, but I was taken by surprise by the reaction. I had a sabbatical two years ago and, before that, everything was going fine. During the sabbatical I got involved with various groups that were, for example, organizing against the World Economic Forum in New York right after Sept. 11, as well as other broadly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist groups. I got quoted in the press a fair amount.

When I came back here, suddenly demeanors completely changed. This isn’t a warm and inclusive group of people; I wasn’t really expecting them to say "Welcome back" or anything, but maybe "Hello." A lot of people wouldn’t say hello to me, they just passed me by as if I wasn’t there. We even had one person here who started telephoning undergraduates’ parents to warn them that their daughters were falling under the sway of some dangerous radical.

So it seems very clear that there was a political component involved, but I think that things became a total crisis when I got drawn into campus issues. It’s very difficult to hold yourself completely apart from these things. There come certain situations where you essentially have to choose sides. There eventually came a point where they tried to kick out one of the [student] union organizers on obviously trumped-up, ridiculous charges. They wrote a bad recommendation for her and accused her of ethical violations for not using it. They tried to kick her out. It was a personal challenge for me: Am I going to go along with this or am I going to try standing in their way? It wasn’t even a political decision. She was a good student, in fact, one of the best I’ve had. I felt I had to do the right thing and stand up for her.


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