Glasnost in MESA

Lisa Anderson, dean of international affairs at Columbia and president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), has sent a letter to members in the current MESA Newsletter. It contains a remarkably frank indictment of the performance of Middle Eastern studies over the past decade.

Anderson describes how the Middle East stagnated in the 1990s, dashing the academics’ hopes for democratization. “It was an ugly picture,” she admits, “and, to be candid, few American scholars of the Middle East did much to advertise it.”

Thousands of individually rational decisions, as my political science colleagues might observe, contributed to a collective abdication of responsibility. In the social sciences, graduate students who wanted jobs and junior faculty who wanted tenure mimicked their colleagues in other areas and looked for flickers of electoral politics and glimmers of economic privatization…and neglected the stubborn durability of the authoritarian regimes….More senior scholars, pained by the demoralization in the region and its neglect in their disciplines, suspended active research agendas in favor of administrative assignments in their universities….In the humanities, many scholars…were reluctant to jeopardize access to visas and research authorizations; in their excessive caution, they failed to speak out about the often appalling circumstances of their friends and colleagues there.

In sum, the practitioners either silenced themselves or parroted disciplinary dogmas. I made most of these points, with evidence, in the fourth chapter of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. I’m glad to see them finally conceded, instead of denied. Anderson’s own joint appearance with me on a panel in Washington in November was the first sign of glasnost in MESA. This is another.

In another part of her letter, Anderson takes an unfair stab at Campus Watch, for “claiming that half of MESA’s membership is ‘of Middle Eastern origin'” and that some of these MESAns have “brought their views with them.” Actually, the first flagging of the Middle Eastern origins of the members surfaced in a MESA presidential speech, delivered in 1992 by Barbara Aswad (and quoted by me in Ivory Towers). Aswad: “Our membership has changed over the years, and possibly half is of Middle Eastern heritage.” Campus Watch wasn’t the first to make that estimate.

When I brought Aswad’s quote, it was to dispute another claim about MESA, made by Edward Said:

During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation….What happened in the Middle East Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination.

I pointed out that so total an “ideological transformation” in MESA would not have taken place had there not been a massive shift in the ethnic composition of its membership, as attested by Aswad. And on the very same page, I quoted a political scientist who noted “the widespread, if undocumentable, impression that an individual’s ethnic background or political persuasion may influence hiring and tenure decisions” in Middle Eastern studies. The political scientist: Lisa Anderson.

Personally, I wouldn’t care if Middle Eastern studies were comprised entirely of people of “Middle Eastern heritage.” What I find objectionable is the way MESA has been transformed into “a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination.” That agenda does sound like something pulled straight out of Damascus or Tehran, and it’s certainly not the proper role of an American professional association. The problem with MESA is that so many of its past officers have tried to whip it into an ethnic lobby or a popular front. It’s this abysmal legacy that Professor Anderson would do right to disown in her next message to the members.

Sovietology: The original title of this posting was Perestroika in MESA. A reader, Fryar Calhoun, wrote to ask whether glasnost is more appropriate. He’s right. While Professor Anderson does write that “we may have to become more assertive as an organization,” and makes some modest suggestions, it’s the self-critique that’s the important aspect of her letter. So glasnost it is.