The hypocrisy of Massad

Yesterday, I invited Columbia’s president and trustees to look more closely at Joseph Massad’s book Desiring Arabs, which Harvard University Press provisionally accepted as a proposal and later rejected as a completed manuscript.

This is not Massad’s only recent publishing accident. The president and trustees might also take a closer look at why the College Art Association paid an Israeli art historian $75,000 in 2007, to avert a libel suit threatened against it for publishing a book review by Massad. The association also wrote to subscribers of its Art Journal, acknowledging that Massad’s review made “factual errors and certain unfounded assertions,” and asking them to excise the potentially libelous passages from their copies of the journal. It’s unlikely any careful publisher will carry Massad again, before running his text past a lawyer.

Now I happen to concur with one of Massad’s responses to the affair: “If every academic was going to think that any critique of academic scholarship was going to have to be defended in a court of law, the state of academic argumentation would be very different.” Indeed. Unfortunately, Massad seems to think that only his criticism of others is protected speech. When his own work came under criticism in 2004, he seriously considered taking a newspaper to court. Massad himself told the story in his statement to the university committee that investigated him on charges of intimidating students:

I set up an appointment with Provost [Alan] Brinkley and met with him. I sought his help and the help of the university’s legal services to fight this defamation of character. The latest article in the New York Sun [by Jonathan Calt Harris] included such blatant and insidious misrepresentations that I seriously considered suing them for defamation. I provided copies of my written work to the Provost and told him of the campaigns to which I had been subjected in the previous years. While the provost seemed mildly supportive, he did not think that suing would be practical. I asked him if he could arrange for me to meet with legal services to which he reluctantly agreed. I had to remind him by E-mail to set up a meeting for me. After he put me in touch with legal services, my E-mails to them went unanswered. I asked the provost to intervene which he did. His intervention produced a response from their office asking me about my available times to set up an appointment. I sent it to them and never heard back. I dropped the matter after I left in mid summer for vacation abroad.

Two things are telling here. First, and most obviously, there is the hypocrisy. If Massad should be free to skewer an Israeli art historian’s book without ending up in court, why shouldn’t someone else be free to skewer Massad’s writings without landing in court? Second, there is Massad’s insistence that Columbia take up his case, when he could have opened the Yellow Pages and gone to any private attorney specializing in libel and defamation. Massad must have known that this would be a frivolous pursuit, but its purpose would be to align him and Columbia against the New York Sun. The state of academic argumentation would be very different if university lawyers had the duty to defend university faculty against intellectual criticism. Columbia rightly drew that line.

As for the Art Journal review, legalities aside, it raises questions of credibility and authorial style. Has Massad’s tenure committee answered these questions to the satisfaction of Columbia’s provost, president and trustees? Has it even asked them?

Pointer: There is an editorial on Massad’s tenure in today’s New York Daily News.