This evening, the participants in the annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in San Francisco will assemble in plenary session, to hear an address by MESA’s president, Laurie Brand. The title: “Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire.” (Presumably that’s the American empire, not the Abbasid.)
When Brand delivers her address, she’ll be preaching to the choir—the very people who elected her two years ago. MESA’s members show a marked propensity for electing political activists to lead them. Indeed, MESA elections have become a kind of referendum, by which members express their political views indirectly. Brand’s election is a case in point. She has all the credentials of an activist academic: a Columbia Ph.D. (Edward Said on the dissertation committee), published work dealing largely with the Palestinians, and a five-year stint at the Institute of Palestine Studies before her hire by the University of Southern California. Her election in late 2002 was MESA’s way of endorsing the Palestinian cause in the midst of the intifada.
That said, Brand didn’t have a reputation as an over-the-top propagandist—until the lead-up to the Iraq war. In the spring of 2003, Brand was in Beirut on sabbatical leave. As Operation Iraqi Freedom got underway, she penned an anti-war letter (scroll to last item) addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell, on behalf of “Americans living in Lebanon.” The letter cited various far-out predictions (e.g., over a million Iraqis might die because of damage to Iraq’s water supply), added that “‘regime change’ imposed from outside is itself completely undemocratic,” and ended in these words: “We refuse to stand by watching passively as the US pursues aggressive and racist policies toward the people around us. We reject your claim to be taking these actions on our behalf. Not in our name.” Seventy Americans signed it.
Brand and a dozen of her colleagues then scheduled a meeting with Vincent Battle, U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, to deliver their letter. But on the appointed day, the road to the embassy was closed because of raucous anti-American demonstrations by Lebanese students. Brand and five other Americans would not be deterred. “Intent upon doing something, we took to the median strip of the Corniche,” Beirut’s seaside boulevard. “We stood near Beirut’s International College with our protest signs identifying us as Americans and calling for an end to the war.” According to Brand, passersby greeted them with thanks and blessings. It must have been quite a spectacle: the president-elect of MESA, literally walking the “Arab street” at the head of a honk-if-you-hate-U.S.-policy protest.
There’s irony here too, since Brand may be the most taxpayer-subsidized academic in Middle Eastern studies. She’s held four Fulbright fellowships, for research in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Tunisia, and she’s received at least three major U.S. government regrants, mostly for work in Jordan. She’s been on government-funded lecture junkets to Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Oman. And her own bio lists her as a past consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, and the U.S. Information Agency. Support for U.S. policy isn’t a prerequisite for any of these subsidies and perks, and Brand didn’t sign away her rights when she took them. But it does make one wonder what she said on those lecture tours, what sort of benefit Washington derived from her consultancies, and what sort of process plied this one academic with so many Fulbrights. That looks like a case of incestuous peer review run amuck; Congress should insist that Fulbright diversify its investments.
To return to Brand’s pounding the Beirut pavement in a sandwich board: she admitted she was surprised when an elderly gentleman drove by and told her, in English, “You are so gullible.” “I have given this sentence some thought,” wrote Brand, “wondering exactly what ideas or beliefs prompted it….Perhaps this gentleman thought our gullibility lay in an expectation that our protests would end the war.” Now old gentlemen in Lebanon who speak English are quite likely to use the language with precision (unlike most American professors), and he didn’t say naive. He said gullible. Yes, it would have been naive to think that protests would end the war. But to be gullible is to be subject to easy manipulation by others, and I’ll bet the old man meant this: you’re a dupe, for standing in the median strip of the “Arab street” to demonstrate in defense of the Arab world’s most despicable regime.
And this brings me back to the title of this evening’s MESA presidential address, “Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire.” In fact, the Middle East has languished in the shadow of despotic regimes, intolerant nationalists, and religious extremists for as long as MESA has been in the business. Regrettably, none of this ever troubled MESAns to the point of bringing them out into the street. When they weren’t looking away, they were explaining away, claiming that the benighted state of their region was really the fault of the West. In a profound sense, then, the entire guild of Middle Eastern studies has been gullible—an easily-manipulated fifth column for the most retrograde forces in the Middle East. That’s also why the guild has been stuck in an epistemological median strip. The MESA presidential address that will bear these tidings won’t be delivered tonight.
So MESA is full of the gullible, but Washington shouldn’t be, at least when it comes to Laurie Brand. At a Beirut conference three months after Baghdad was liberated, Brand announced that the Bush administration had lied more than any other administration, and that it showed a “systematic disregard for democratic institutions and values.” From Beirut, she e-mailed her campus newspaper: “Americans have been seduced by the Bush administration’s lies about its reasons behind this war.” She’s recently written of U.S. policy that “I cannot remember when I have been more continuously outraged.” Well, it’s a free country, but I’d like an assurance from the Department of State that she won’t be sent off on any taxpayer-funded speaking junkets over the next four years. Not in our name—and not on our nickel.