Cole and Yale

On Tuesday, Juan Cole posted this appeal on his website, Informed Comment:

If among my loyal readers there are any attorneys with expertise in libel law, in the US or UK, who might be willing to consult on a possible series of lawsuits for reckless defamation of character resulting in professional harm–done on a contingency basis–I’d much appreciate hearing from you.

Cole doesn’t say who he’s got in mind as targets of a suit, but a few likely candidates come to mind. One is David Horowitz, who’s included a Cole entry in his new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. According to a press report, “Cole called the chapter on him ‘dishonest’ and said that it is ‘if not libelous, then verging on it.’ He declined to say if he’s planning any legal action.” (A propos, Cole’s written before that Horowitz “has extremely wealthy backers.”) But in the very same press article, Cole seems to undercut any possible claim that Horowitz has done him harm: “I think [Horowitz] has no impact whatsoever. He’s not relevant to our academic governance or the way we make decisions in the academy.” So Cole himself has dismissed Horowitz as harmless.

Just how does anyone do “professional harm” to a tenured full professor? It’s a question posed in the (moderated) comments section of Cole’s weblog appeal. Writes one reader: “If you were fired from your job as a professor over these published defamatory statements that would be one thing. Short of that I can’t see it.” Writes another: “If one is a middle aged college professor whose primary source of income remains intact, it starts to get to be difficult to prove how much income has been lost.” In fact, it’s obvious that Cole has a job for life at the University of Michigan. Tenured American academics are the most protected and secure class in the history of all humankind. No one could say anything about Cole–and there is nothing that Cole could say–that could cost him his Ann Arbor sinecure.

So what “professional harm” could possibly have been done to him? It’s here that Cole’s commentators have missed the point. In American academe, the coming of middle age is the moment of truth. Every professor fantasizes about getting the summons from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. They may have reached the summit of achievement in their own institutions, but they covet the prestige of the top three. Cole seems to be no exception, as we read in an article published last week in the Yale Herald. There it’s confirmed that Cole is a candidate for a new contemporary Middle East slot at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

The article also quotes a few of Cole’s critics, including Alex Joffe of Campus Watch, and Michael Oren, who’s a visiting professor at Yale. The reporter got this reaction from Oren to a typical Colecism:

On Feb. 17, 2003, Cole wrote in an online post, “Apparently [Bush] has fallen for a line from the neo-cons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon’s ass.” Oren said of this comment, “Clearly, that’s anti-Semitism; that’s not a criticism of Israeli policy. If you’re accusing Jews of manipulating the American government to fight wars for Israel without any evidence, then that’s not legitimate criticism; that’s in the area of racial hatred.”

A named Michigan student is also quoted, to the effect that when she met Cole to discuss her interest in studying Arabic in Egypt, she deliberately avoided mentioning her Judaism or Zionist beliefs. “I didn’t want him to see me in his eyes as a Jewish student, but as a serious student of Middle East studies who wanted to talk to him about Arabic.”

All this doesn’t bode well for Cole at Yale, which may be why he’s feeling professionally harmed these days, and wondering whom to sue over it. After all, isn’t he obviously deserving of a Yale professorship? Isn’t he the most famous professor of Middle Eastern studies in America today? President of the Middle East Studies Association? Regular columnist at Doesn’t he “command Arabic”? (And he’s studied eight or nine languages!) And look at that weblog! Those insinuations of antisemitism are blocking his path to destiny! (And by making an appeal for legal advice on his website, Cole also is setting up his “loyal readers” should Yale turn him down. It will be because he was libelously tarred with antisemitism by the Likudniks and neocons.)

Of course, that would suggest that appointments at Yale are subject to manipulation by Likudniks and neocons, an absurd notion. So in the event that Yale does pass Cole over, it’s likely to be because his scholarship, and commitment to scholarship, fall short of Yale standards. How might Yale reach that conclusion?

Celebrity and scholarship aren’t necessarily correlated. An argument could be made–it’s one I’d accept–that Cole hasn’t produced a single scholarly work of significance to Middle Eastern studies as a whole. He’s produced a few specialized monographs and conference volumes, a couple of compendia of his own articles, and translations of Kahlil Gibran (which sell better than anything else he’s written). Some of his major areas of interest (Bahai studies, 19th-century Iran, Shiism) also overlap those of Yale historian Abbas Amanat (who happens to be on the search committee), so it’s not exactly clear how much added value Cole would bring to Yale.

Moreover, in the years since 9/11, while people like Fawaz Gerges and Mary Habeck have belted out important books on Al-Qaeda, Cole has spent his time obsessively blogging, summarizing news reports and spewing out political invective. In his middle age, at a time when serious historians produce their great works of synthesis, Cole has turned into a journalist. Academics would be right to wonder how anyone can blog with this intensity and still produce any sustained scholarship. I certainly wonder, and I say that as an academic blogger of long standing. The price of blogging is paid in scholarship.

But the major objection to Cole surely must be that he doesn’t know the contemporary Middle East. Cole did all his scholarly work on the 19th century (his monographs on the Urabi revolt, Shiite Lucknow, and Bahai modernization). He has not made a speciality of the contemporary Middle East, and it shows. Time and again, I’ve expressed wonderment at his errors. (On the right sidebar here at Sandbox, scroll down to “Juantanamo!” for links to my major Cole-itis attacks.) Tony Badran has done the same for Cole’s purported knowledge of Lebanon, and IraqPundit has covered Cole’s Iraq gaffes. When it comes to Israel, which is also situated in the contemporary Middle East, not only is Cole embarrassingly ignorant but, worse, he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

So I would be surprised, and even shocked, if Yale appointed Juan Cole. The fact that he’s under serious consideration (and that Princeton has considered Rashid Khalidi) is just more evidence of the enormous generation gap in Middle Eastern studies. For over thirty years, the best people have avoided the field, and mediocre people have flourished in it. Now that there’s intense student demand for courses on the modern Middle East, provosts and deans are in a quandary. It’s at times like this that our “great universities” earn the name. They do so by upholding scholarly standards and protecting their students from “professional harm.”