Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Monday, April 04, 2005
The Lion Trembles
By Issa Mikel
When the weak risk life and limb to a stand up to injustice, they serve both as an inspiration and an embarrassing example for those of us who sit in complacent comfort. And yet on occasion humanity bears forth striking examples of individuals who risk power, prestige, money, and reputation for a just yet unpopular cause. Charles A. Beard, professor of history and politics at Columbia University and political reformer, a man who resigned from his teaching position in 1917 to protest of the University’s termination of several professors for their opposition to World War I, was one such example. Sadly, courage and principle of that breed are rare commodities at Columbia today.
Recently, I had the dubious privilege of sitting in on a lecture given by our intrepid captain, Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, in the flesh. The subject of his talk was “Academic Freedom.” Though the reader may snicker, he gave an enormously edifying lecture on the subject, albeit more for its insight into the mind of the lecturer than its elucidation of the topic itself. This talk, given on March 23rd at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, was merely the latest in a long line of tragic failures by President Bollinger to handle the assault upon Columbia’s faculty in a principled manner, or even to stay the “balanced” course he claims for himself. But more than any other statement he has made, it lays out in clear English his stance on this critical issue and betrays his true allegiances. Ironically, though not unexpectedly, the recent report of the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee accords well with Bollinger’s position on this matter. Some explanation will elucidate how we have arrived at the current unfortunate state of affairs.
Despite some tepid remarks on the danger of attempts by conservative movements to control scholarship and speech on U.S. campuses, including a weak swing at David Horowitz and lip service to the principle that the university must regulate its own affairs, Bollinger’s talk was subtly yet unmistakably damaging to academic freedom. The animating topic of the talk was “the academic temperament,” alternatively styled as scholarly “professionalism.” According to Bollinger, this principle means that although professors need wide latitude to speak, write, and teach as they please, this right is strictly circumscribed by the need to “balance” different perspectives in one’s mind and avoid introducing “ideology” into the classroom. Over and over, he warned professors not to “politicize” the classroom, that they must exercise “self-restraint.” Similarly, the report has chosen to emphasis the duties of professors as outlined in the Faculty Handbook: “in conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own.” Thus, President Bollinger, and now the Ad Hoc Committee have projected a false air of impartiality while in reality internalizing the language used by the David Project and their confederates to frame this debate.
We can all agree that critical thought and self-doubt are essential exercises for anyone and that there are some broad limits to student and professor conduct on campus. (And I challenge those who can countenance no criticism of the Israeli government to engage in them for a change.) But what has occurred at Columbia does not even begin to reach these boundaries, and the use of such assertions to criticize the professors in question and to justify their current treatment is misleading and pernicious for several reasons.
First, this line of attack ignores completely the mountain of evidence that these professors, far from being the zealous ideologues that they have so slanderously been portrayed in the conservative press, are themselves practitioners of critical thought. Professor Massad is an excellent example, having received a Certificate of Appreciate from the Columbia College Class of 2000 for his superb instruction of the course “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies.” He was also runner-up for the prestigious Van Doren teaching award and has received widespread scholarly acclaim for his works, including his first book, which was published by the Columbia University Press. His next book will be published by the Harvard University Press. Moreover, receiving a teaching position at Columbia University involves a grueling vetting process, and only scholars of the highest caliber are up to the task. The appropriate barometer of a scholar’s intellectual rigor and achievement are his or her colleagues, not an outside pressure group with an ideological axe to grind or a university president who can barely locate Jerusalem on a map.
Both their colleagues and the vast majority of their students have judged these professors worthy. Who are Lee Bollinger and the David Project to paint them as narrow-minded absolutists? And why do they give so much weight to the opinions of a tiny handful of students who obviously have a difficulty accepting objectionable ideas over the overwhelming number of student who have found the courses in question to be valuable and enriching?
Yet such unfounded portrayal of these professors sounds a theme we have heard before. Simply put, there is a racist double standard for Arab and Muslims who voice strong opinions and denounce injustice. Whenever a non-Arab and non-Muslim asserts intelligent, yet strongly held criticisms of oppressive regimes or decries well-documented human rights abuses, they are applauded for their intellectual and moral courage. But Arab and Muslim professors who do the same are immediately labeled as extremists and zealots who fail to see the complexity of a given issue. Witness the treatment of Dr. Massad in the recent article by Scott Sherman in The Nation, which advances the view of Massad as a “trafficker in absolutes” and ideologue, a picture painted by those who have never taken his courses or read a single word that he has written. And a generally liberal acquaintance of mine from Israel recently told me that he would never want to discuss Israel and Palestine with Massad because he was sure Massad “hates” him for being Israeli.
Yes, even the great American liberal, that rare, noble bird, all too easily falls into such racist stereotypes. How else can one explain Bollinger’s readiness to convict Massad, Dabashi, and Saliba as intellectual extremists without his having read their work, attended their classes, or even met or spoken with them in person? Does Bollinger even know that when Massad and others call Israel a “racist” state he is doing more than airing “personal ideology,” that ethno-religious discrimination is entrenched in numerous Israeli laws and policies? He accuses them of undue “certitude” of thought, but one should ask our President whether he suffers from a glut of certitude about his beloved topics of First Amendment rights and affirmative action. Perhaps this inquiry would temper his glibness about the distinction between politics and scholarship.
These stereotypes also deny the painfully well-documented history of human rights abuses against the Palestinian people by the Israeli State by smearing anyone who talks about them as an ideologue. In the U.S., I may call attention to human rights abuses against Jews in Russia or indigenous peoples in Brazil, yet if I denounce Israeli atrocities in Jenin or Rafah I am accused of “imbalance.” To be “balanced” and “objective,” I am forced to present the Israeli government’s side of the story. Since when must reports of torture, disproportionate use of force, and collective punishment be counterbalanced by a defense of the perpetrator? Should African-Americans in the civil rights movement have been forced to argue the side of racist Jim Crow laws? But this is beside the point, for apparently when Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch report on Palestine and Israel they are struck with a sudden, inexplicable compulsion to lie and distort the truth. I cannot describe how insulting and denigrating it is to be told as a Palestinian that you may not discuss human rights abuses against your people as hard fact, that putatively universal norms just do not apply to you.
I agree that the issue of what is appropriate and inappropriate for the classroom must be discussed thoughtfully. But President Bollinger, despite his entreaties, has done everything in his power to preempt debate on these issues. By repeatedly announcing his presumption of these professors’ guilt, he has exploited his powerful voice to squelch discussion rather than encourage it.
The second major difficulty with President Bollinger’s framing of the attack on MEALAC is that it ignores the folly of allowing outside forces to regulate the intellectual rigor of university professors. Many people have ideas on the ideal way to manage the classroom, but it is not our business to impose those ideas on individual instructors and not all classes must function perfectly. If academic freedom means anything it is that a university must not bow to outside pressure to regulate the scholarship and classroom behavior of instructors. To do so seriously inhibits them from expressing their true opinions and stifles the very diversity of opinion the David Project dishonestly claims it endeavors to protect. And as Professor Jonathan Cole of Columbia has astutely noted, universities continually review and evaluate the performance of professors inside and outside the classroom.
Notwithstanding his protestations, Bollinger’s rejection of outside interference in Columbia’s internal affairs is preposterous; he has shown himself to be little more than a quisling leader who is more concerned about public relations than the truth. As the president of one of this country’s most prominent academic institutions, he has sent a signal to anyone with a video camera and a bit of money that the classroom is now the domain of ideologically driven pressure groups.
Third, there is a serious flaw in the “diversity” approach to academic freedom pushed by the makers of Columbia Unbecoming and inspired by Campus Watch and other conservative groups. According to this vision, academic freedom is the equivalent of freedom of speech, in that the full range of views on any given topic must have free reign to compete equally in a cerebral marketplace. But academic freedom is not freedom of speech, it is the commitment to the principle that humanity is better off when there are spaces in which individuals may express new, outrageous, even offensive ideas without fear of retaliation.
We must not democratize the classroom by imposing on it some fictitious requirement of diversity. The classroom is not a voting booth. A professor need not give equal time to all ideas, let alone defenses of human rights abuses. Such imposition sends the dangerous messages to students that all ideas are equally valid and that they have just as much right to air their opinions in the classroom as a professor. But students, and the public in general, seem confused about this strange notion of academic freedom while most faculty sit aside without engaging in a vigorous discussion of the matter. What we need is more open, thorough discourse on what academic freedom is or should mean, led by the largely silent scholars who should be the most vocal of us all right now.
And lastly, President Bollinger and the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee’s report have failed to notice that not only is there voluminous evidence that the allegations aired in Columbia Unbecoming are a mixture of lies, distortions, and flawed memories, but that even if every single allegation were true they would not state a claim of intimidation or harassment.
Take the allegation that Professor Massad asked a student in a public lecture how many Palestinians he had killed. Even by the report’s own admission, the former student does not remember where or when the event took place or the subject or name of the talk. He does not even remember the student organization sponsoring the event. The only one claiming to corroborate the claim is a friend of the person making the accusation. Everyone else has been struck by amnesia. These are highly suspicious circumstances, as the event seems to have vanished into thin air. And the claims are so outrageous that one would think that other audience would have remembered them. But they nonetheless have been taken for gospel truth by the public. The “Columbians for Academic Freedom” and the David Project have learned one of the oldest maxims of the art of propaganda: if you repeat an allegation enough times, it need not be relevant or even true for you to make the public believe it. And they have received willing aid by the right-wing press. And we all know that if something is written in the press, it must be true.
Sadly, even though this allegation falls outside the report’s remit, the Committee members decide to comment on and found it “credible.” But the meaning of this term as used in this context is ambiguous. It reads as though the report found that the claim is “conceivable,” meaning that it is not so absurd as to be outside the realm of possibility. Clearly, this is an outrageous thing for the Committee to write. How can you ruin a man’s career because it is conceivable that a claim might be true? The Committee’s function is not to report on what is “credible,” but what actually transpired. If there is insufficient evidence that the incident actually happened, then the Committee has no business suggesting in this half-baked way that it did. Either it happened or it did not, and it makes a mockery of the notion of fair procure for an investigation of this sort to claim that the evidence is insufficient and yet hint that the charge could be true.
Yet even on its own terms this claim could not constitute intimidation in the classroom, for there is no claim that it took place inside a classroom. The student in question has never even taken a class with Massad. Thus, if this student chooses in a public forum to put in issue his military service, his actions may validly be questioned. The allegation that Dr. Massad told a former student that he would not allow denials of Israeli atrocities in his classroom is another excellent example of the way in which pro-Palestinian professors are held to a different standard from other professors.
Another example of the way the David Project has succeeded in shaping public perceptions of what constitutes “intimidation” is the claim by Deena Shanker that Professor Massad told her that he would not allow denials of Israeli atrocities in his classroom. As regards the evidence, three students in the report are cited as supporting the claim against three students who contradicted their claims. But the report still finds the claim “credible.” Does this mean that the report believes Shanker and her two friends over the other students? If so, why? None of this is explained in the report, just as there is no explanation of why the Committee did not seek the testimony of the many other students in the class (some seventy).
Once again, we must note that even if the allegation were true, there would nonetheless be no intimidation. If a professor says that he will not have students deny documented human rights abuses is no form of intimidation, nor is it unacceptable conduct. If I were to walk into a class and deny the My Lai Massacre or lynchings against blacks in the American South, I would deservedly earn a similar response by a professor. It is only because of the unprincipled denial of facts widely acknowledged throughout the world and the distortion of his reputation that such a statement by Professor Massad begins to sound like "intimidation."
A professor does not intimidate a student merely by expressing his or her views in strong terms. University students are not children and they must not be shielded from novel or offensive opinions. All students have witnessed much stronger statements by professors on a variety of subjects. But no one claims in an economics class or a constitutional law class that an assertive or even obnoxious professor intimidates students. I have attend courses in which professors have exhibited behavior much more aggressive that that claimed about Massad, and in none did such actions stifle debate. In fact, such force of personality often encourage more robust debate. The David Project has thus exploited the extreme sense of entitlement that many sheltered students feel in the face of ideas they find objectionable and fueled the current trend in conservative anti-free-expression movements to infantilize university students. Rigorous debate can be unpleasant sometimes, and the university should mollycoddle those who would have it otherwise, particularly when the stakes are so high.
In short, there has been no intimidation, but President Bollinger had apparently already made up his mind to the contrary long before the release of the report. The most outstanding example of this presumption of guilt is his statement that we must not allow “a few instances of inappropriate conduct” by faculty to define Columbia University. And now he speaks as though the claim by Deena Shanker is established fact. As unfounded as the report’s tentative “conclusions” were, Bollinger goes even beyond them in his role as judge, jury, and executioner. Now, in the words of our President in his recent interview on NPR, we “know” Joseph Massad intimidated Deena Shanker.
With such statements, President Bollinger has effectively served the head of Joseph Massad to his attackers on a platter. Instead of making a spirited defense of academic freedom, he tells the world that it is acceptable to convict these professors on bare allegations alone. In so doing, he adopts a strategy of saving the university by sacrificing a few professors, sending the message that we can amputate the offending limb that the healthy body might live on. If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.
And the report provides him the cover he needs to do just that. The most dangerous aspect of the report is its attempt to sound reasonable, to give the appearance that it is “balancing” interests. But the validation of this single foundationless claims is more than enough to convict Professor Massad in the public eye and give Bollinger the mandate he so desperately desires to sanction him officially. The report gives him political and procedural cover to execute a course of action upon which he decided long ago. And most people do not realize that a sanction of this sort on his record is all it takes for Professor Massad to become a pariah in the academic world, quite aside from the public flaying he has already received in the press. Professor Joseph Massad has been chosen as the sacrificial lamb to appease the conservative Zionist activists who seek to “recapture” Middle East studies on the American campus. From now on academics across the country will think twice before opening their mouths or loosing their pens in criticism of Israeli policy. All the while, the majority of faculty and students have stood by and watched the sacrifice, failing to see the disastrous implications of what we have collectively allowed to happen.
Surely, we should expect more from the Columbia administration and faculty than this. President Bollinger, fond of quoting Beard as though heir to a tradition of dissent, has instead served as handmaid to the silencers of legitimate dissent. And the Ad Hoc Committee has obliged him in his task. One wonders how the history books will treat this latest example of timid, tremulous, and unprincipled leadership. And each of us will look back and ask ourselves whether we did enough to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past or simply stood in silence.