Saturday, April 09, 2005
Speaking Truth to Smears
I am cancelling my subscription to the New York Times, and I urge others to do the same.
The New York Times editorial board went over to the Dark Side on Thursday, with an editorial that blasted the end results of a panel at Columbia University that investigated whether students had been intimidated by professors at Columbia University. The panel found that there was no evidence of any such thing, that no students had been punished for their views by lowered grades, that there was no evidence of racial bigotry.
The NYT nevertheless praised the neo-McCarthyite "film" (actually it is large numbers of films that are constantly re-edited and have never been publicly shown) produced by the shadowy anti-Palestinian "David Project." But the "film" is not an objective document. I could interview on film lots of people who ascribed all sorts of bad behavior to the editors of the New York Times and call it a "damning documentary." Students, including Israelis, who have actually taken classes in Middle East studies at Columbia dispute the films' allegations.
The real question here is whether it is all right to dispute the Zionist version of history. The David Project, AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Middle East Forum, Campus Watch, MEMRI, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Zionist Organization of America, etc., etc., maintain that it is not all right. Some of them have even been known to maintain that disputing Zionist historiography is a form of hate speech.
Historians are unkind to nationalism of any sort. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism of the Zionist sort posits eternal "peoples" through history, who have a blood relationship (i.e. are a "race") and who have a mystical relationship with some particular territory. The Germans, who were very good at this game, called it "blood and soil." Nationalism casts about for some ancient exemplar of the "nation" to glorify as a predecessor to the modern nation. (Since nations actually did not exist in the modern sense before the late 1700s, the relationship is fictive. To explain what happened between ancient glory and modern nationalism, nationalists often say that the "nation" "fell asleep" or "went into centuries of decline. My colleague Ron Suny calls this the "sleeping beauty" theory of nationalism.)
But there are no eternal nations through history. People get all mixed up genetically over time, except for tiny parts of the genome like the mitochondria or the Y chromosome, on which too much emphasis is now put. Since there are no eternal nations based in "blood," they cannot have a mystical connection to the "land." People get moved around. The Turks now in Anatolia once lived in Mongolia (and most Turks anyway are just Greeks who converted to Islam and began speaking Turkish).
The David Project wants Middle East historians to reproduce faithfully in the classroom the Zionist master narrative as the "true" version of history. We aren't going to do that, and nobody can make us do it, and if anyone did make us do it, it would be destructive of academic, analytical understandings of history. Next the Serbs will be demanding that we explain why the Bosnians had to be suppressed, and the Russians will object to any attempt to understand the roots of Chechen terrorism, and the Chinese will object to our teaching about Taiwan. The American Nazi Party will maintain that the Third Reich is presented unsympathetically in university history classes, etc. etc. Ethnic nationalisms if allowed to dictate the teaching of history would destroy the entire discipline.
The NYT editorial concludes:
"But in the end, the report is deeply unsatisfactory because the panel's mandate was so limited. Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore."
What the editors mean by "anti-Israeli" is not spelled out. But generally the term means any criticism of Israel. (You can criticize Argentina all day every day till the cows come home and nobody cares in the US, but make a mild objection to Ariel Sharon putting another 3500 settlers onto Palestinian territory in contravention of all international law and of the road map to which the Bush administration says it is committed, and boom!, you are branded a racist bigot. And if you dare point out that Sharon's brutality and expansionism end up harming America and Americans by unnecessarily making enemies for us (because we are Sharon's sycophants), then you are really in trouble.
Personally, I think that the master narrative of Zionist historiography is dominant in the American academy. Mostly this sort of thing is taught by International Relations specialists in political science departments, and a lot of them are Zionists, whether Christian or Jewish. Usually the narrative blames the Palestinians for their having been kicked off their own land, and then blames them again for not going quietly. It is not a balanced point of view, and if we take the NYT seriously (which we could stop doing after they let Judith Miller channel Ahmad Chalabi on the front page every day before the war), then the IR professors should be made to teach a module on the Palestinian point of view, as well. That is seldom done.
Academic teaching is not about balance or "fairness" or presenting "both sides" of an issue. It is about teaching people to reason analytically and synthetically about problems. The NYT approach would ruin our ability to do this and would impose a particular version of history on us all by fiat. It even implies that some committee should sanction anyone critical of Israel.
Universities are about skewering sacred cows. Anyone who doesn't want their views challenged or their feelings hurt should stay away from them. If you can't handle an intellectual challenge, you shouldn't be on campus. And you certainly shouldn't be editing a major newspaper.
I will excerpt some of the most egregious comments from an April 8 editorial in the Columbia Spectator The writer, in typical Zionist apologist fashion can't find anything to dispute in Professor Massad and Khalidi's instruction so resorts to smears. I've posted before about the current despicable attacks upon Rashid Khalidi, who hails from a family in Palestine renowned for centuries for their scholarly tradition:
As Efraim Karsh, head of the Mediterranean Studies department at King’s College, University of London, implied on March 6 in Uris Hall, Massad’s classroom hysterics are not the real problem. The real problem is a polite and affable man like Professor Khalidi, who nevertheless peddles political propaganda in class, propaganda masquerading as real scholarship.
Massad’s ideas are neither unique nor radical or interesting. I w[I don't know if the writer is or was a student's of Joseph Massad's. If he were, I wonder why he didn't present on of Massad'd ideas that he finds neither "unique," "radical," or "interesting." I've studied Palestine for years and as bowled over the first time I read Massad in Al-Ahram]. One can find the same radical ideas posted on little stickers in subway stations, or blared out over megaphones in Union Square: one need not pay to hear them in class. Students take an enormous financial burden to attend a university like Columbia for four years, and they deserve better than the shrill slogans of a Massad or Churchill. [Since Churchill teaches in Denver, I presume that this student has not had a class with him; hence why does he feel at liberty to trash his teaching?]Columbia has an obligation to provide a high-quality education to its students, an education full of rich content, not to subject its students to unprofessional bullying in the classroom and then to graduate incompetents well-trained in the conventional pieties of the day. The provincialism and lack of general knowledge among graduates of this country’s best universities is unbelievable, and this is a result of an academic life that has been more concerned with indoctrinating students with pseudo-Marxist pablum than training them to be careful thinkers and readers with a broad base of knowledge.
It is neither good scholarship nor prudent practice to graduate another generation of students trained mainly in moral indignation, obsessed with the small state of Israel and with the details of politically motivated academic fictions like the “formation of Palestinian identity.”
And, finally, smears without substance from an April 7 editorial in the Columbia Spectator.
Imagine that you’re learning derivatives in calculus class. There are two different ways to teach derivatives, and the professor chooses his favorite one. Unfortunately, you’re having a tough time understanding it. You ask the teacher if he’ll explain the other method to you. He immediately refuses your request, emphasizing that he has a right to free speech and academic freedom. “I can teach Calculus however I want,” he says.[This writer does not know the difference between "what" and "how"].
You wouldn’t expect that in a math class, so why do we expect that in certain liberal arts classes? The answer is that in a politically-charged environment, each side is far too emotional to reach a rational conclusion.[What is irrational about speaking out against ethnic cleansing and institutionalized racism?]
The problem is the utter lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses, especially in liberal arts departments. Professors have their dogma, and hire those with the same dogma, and they all shove it down students’ throats.[You will probably take the place of Thomas Friedman one day].It’s an accepted fact that if you take a MEALAC class, your professor will make his hatred of Israel clear early on. One of my favorite examples of the dearth of intellectual diversity at Columbia was a panel held to debate the future of the Middle East in late January. In the ninth paragraph of the Spectator article describing the debate it is off-handedly mentioned that “all the panelists voiced their agreement that the reality is defined by Israeli racism.” That’s like having a civil rights debate and only inviting Klan members. [Why would one require a diverse group to debate civil rights? Would one argue that some people are not entitled to civil rights? Maybe Alan Dershowitz could take this side, the mentor of you little junior heartless Zionists, because he thinks that relatives of suicide bombers don't have civil rights; he thinks that they should be killed]
However, professors also have a responsibility to their students and to the university as a whole. The primary purpose of the classroom setting is for students to learn as much as they can about differing opinions so that they can make their own conclusions about the world. [Now students, let me introduce Benny Morris who will instruct on the joys of ethnic cleansing].
Teaching only one side of the Middle East debate is like teaching only one explanation of derivatives; it’s not against the rules, it simply makes you a bad teacher. This seems to have been forgotten by professors like Joseph Massad and George Saliba, who are so obsessed with their myopic political agendas that they seem to forget that they also have responsibilities to their students. They have students who are frustrated, feel intimidated, and aren’t learning. The proper response is not to scream about free speech, but to address their students’ concerns and become better teachers.[A man who Edward Said thought enough of to mentor is a BAD TEACHER? What aren't they learning? That Jews made the desert bloom? That there's no such thing as a Palestinian? That all Palestinians are terrorists? That all Palestinians hate Jews? That Jews and Arabs have fought for centuries? The point, young man, is that the Zionists, whom you abet, don't want you to learn anything].