Campus Watch is Ticking

Now that the flap surrounding Campus Watch has subsided, it’s useful to look back at the way the project was received. Campus Watch seeks to monitor Middle Eastern studies on campus. Daniel Pipes, who directs the project and its institutional parent, the Middle East Forum, has said that it builds upon my own book, Ivory Towers on Sand, and I’m flattered. But it received far more media attention than my book did, because of its tactic of listing a small number of academics deemed to be especially egregious.

Nothing confers more prestige on an academic than putative status as a victim of some right-wing conspiracy. It’s probably the shortest route to academic power, tenure included. It was no surprise, then, when a hundred academics submitted their names for inclusion. These people sign their names to activist petitions all the time, and many were clearly anxious join the list, so as to bask in the admiration of their colleagues. Alas, Campus Watch abolished the list after about a week, and the disappointment of the tenured radicals was palpable.

As for the actual targets of Campus Watch—the egregious eight and their colleagues—they can hardly be faulted for hitting back. But the way a few of them did it exemplifies the very flaws that Campus Watch promises to expose. The responses thus open yet another window on the Escheresque world inhabited by the mandarins of Middle Eastern studies. Let’s peer through it for a moment.

Consider Professor Hamid Dabashi, the intemperate ayatollah who presides over Columbia University’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. He jumped into the fray last spring, when he cancelled his classes to join a pro-Palestinian demonstration and belittled the university’s Hillel rabbi for registering a complaint. (Dabashi just had to protest against Zionism, “a ghastly racist ideology.”) All of which, presumably, earned him his listing at Campus Watch.

In a television appearance on Donahue with Daniel Pipes, Dabashi’s principal line of defense was that Pipes represented a “failed academic,” who had no right to criticize him or anyone else in the ivory tower. How did Dabashi reach this conclusion? Presumably by reading Pipes: “You have not written one sentence worth reading twice,” Dabashi blurted to Pipes on national television. But in an interview given immediately after the broadcast, Dabashi said the opposite: “I have never met the man [Pipes] or read a word he has written.”

So which is it? Has he read every sentence, or not a single word? I suspect that Dabashi, like a lazy undergraduate, really didn’t do the reading after all, but simply relied on hearsay about Pipes’s oeuvre. When students do this, it’s called faking it, for which their professors usually fail them. So it seems to me that if there was a failed academic on Donahue that night, it had to be Dabashi.

But of course Dabashi simply expressed, in exaggerated form, the prevalent culture of Middle Eastern studies. The academics only read one another, because their fortunes depend only on one another. If you haven’t subjected yourself to peer review, you aren’t worth reading. This goes far to explain the intellectual isolation of Middle Eastern studies, which are trapped in a hopeless circle of self-references.

Want more evidence for that attitude? Professor Juan Cole teaches the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan. He once ran its Middle East center, and he now edits the flagship journal of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). I wouldn’t have put him on a list of worst offenders (although he is working his way up), and he was probably the only person truly surprised to find his name at Campus Watch. But again, his response exemplified the very mindset Campus Watch seeks to expose.

The crux of Cole’s criticism? “As for Pipes himself,” Cole told, “let’s just say that he’s not a full professor at a major university.” Since Cole is a full professor at a major university, this is known as “pulling rank.” Now on Cole’s personal website, he mentions his childhood as an “army brat,” and his put-down of Pipes reminds me of nothing so much as a military man grumbling about civilians who stick their noses in business they don’t understand. (It’s a striking contrast to the attitude of Pipes, who grew up in Cambridge as the son of a renowned and controversial Harvard professor. One assumes that in that household, it was taken for granted that full professors at major universities could be full windbags.)

Cole of course misses the point. The wider public, and the rest of academe, have serious doubts as to whether Middle Eastern studies are capable of maintaining the standards they purport to uphold. Do we accept the Enron-ish assurances of Professor Dabashi? “Within universities there are built-in mechanisms of assuring the quality of our teaching and scholarship.” Or do we tilt an ear toward his Columbia colleague, Dean Lisa Anderson, president-elect of MESA? She has acknowledged “the widespread, if undocumentable, impression that an individual’s ethnic background or political persuasion may influence hiring or tenure decisions.” Perhaps that impression is widespread for a reason: the guild of Middle Eastern studies is engaged in backroom blacklisting on a massive scale. Now that would explain why you don’t find Pipes or his equivalent on the Middle East faculty of any American university.

As for the list itself: Campus Watch erred by not engaging critically with the ideas of those it listed. The names hung like some vague and unsubstantiated accusation. Campus Watch also overestimated the civility of its cyber-audience, some of whom took the “dossiers” as an invitation to spam and harass either those who were listed, or Campus Watch itself. So Campus Watch lived and learned—and corrected itself.

And Campus Watch did something else that undermines the (self-serving) charges of McCarthyism. From day one, it ran all the criticism of itself on its website. The best place for one-stop-shopping for the hostile reactions to Campus Watch has been its own Campus Watch in the News. You won’t find too many institutions or projects on the web that reproduce their bad press alongside the good. (Here’s another exception.) Does MESA, MERIP, the Electronic Intifada, or the Middle East Policy Council do the same? Campus Watch’s unorthodox “listing” received criticism. Fair enough—and Campus Watch changed. Campus Watch’s unorthodox practice of publicizing criticism of itself received no praise. Not fair—but not surprising, since it’s a practice none of Campus Watch’s critics intends to emulate.

Listing? I probably wouldn’t have done it, even for the publicity. But nothing else could have elicited such a vast and valuable corpus of outlandish responses—a mountain of grist for my mills, and proof that Middle Eastern studies haven’t changed. Thank you, Campus Watch.