Juan Cole Jogs My MEMRI

Juan Cole is howling about a threat of legal action from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which objects to claims he made about its press monitoring operation—claims which, according to MEMRI’s president Yigal Carmon, are factually untrue. Cole claimed that MEMRI is funded “to the tune of $60 million a year” (an absurd figure), that MEMRI is biased (in the eye of the beholder), and that it is somehow linked to the Likud party (it isn’t). MEMRI now demands a retraction on all three points, and threatens Cole with possible legal action if he fails to do so.

When I read Cole’s posting, it reminded me of an earlier threat to sue—made by Juan Cole to Daniel Pipes and myself, after the Campus Watch website came online on September 18, 2002. I received a message from Cole on September 23, 2002, and it read as follows:

Subject: Cease and desist

Dear Mssrs. Pipes and Kramer:

It has come to my attention that your organization, Middle East Forum, is maintaining a Web site with “dossiers” on me. Further, that you have publicly called upon others to monitor my speech and actions on a constant basis and to provide to your internet Web site reports on me, which you intend to post.

As a result of your actions, I have been the victim of repetitive spam attacks, which a reasonable person could have foreseen.

I maintain that these actions may constitute a form of stalking, including cyberstalking, as defined under relevant Pennsylvania and Michigan state statutes. I believe they also may constitute conspiracy to encourage others to stalk, and may be actionable under those grounds as well.

If you do not immediately remove my name from your monitoring Web site, cease maintaining a “dossier” on me, and cease and desist from calling upon others to spy on me and repudiate your earlier calls to do so, I reserve the right to pursue all legal remedies, criminal and civil.

Sincerely,

Juan Cole
Professor
Department of History

I ignored this threat because I wasn’t a party to Campus Watch (another case of Cole jumping to conclusions). I know that Pipes ignored it as well, and he adduced other reasons when he made adjustments to the website on September 30.

What strikes me, in retrospect, is how quick Cole was to threaten legal action, when in fact Campus Watch did far less damage to him than he has done to MEMRI. Campus Watch simply listed Cole and put together a collection of links to his work. (The list looked like this; Cole’s “dossier” looked like this.) At that point, Campus Watch had made no specific assertions about his scholarship; nor had it said a word about his funding, his biases, or his party political affiliations. And Campus Watch, which did not post Cole’s e-mail, encouraged no one to bombard Cole with spam, something Cole may have prompted his thousands of readers to do to MEMRI, by publishing its e-mail address and urging them to write to it.

MEMRI’s president, Yigal Carmon, shouldn’t have threatened legal action—in part because it makes too much of Cole, who’s famously prone to fact-free tantrums, and whose weblog is an embarrassment of errors. But in the same measure, Juan Cole shouldn’t have threatened action two years ago against Daniel Pipes and myself. I don’t like the culture of litigation, where people deal with criticism by legal intimidation instead of arguments. Cole now piously writes that “threatening bloggers with lawsuits… violates the essential spirit of open discourse on the Web,” and he’s urged his readers to demand that MEMRI “respect the spirit of the free sharing of ideas that makes the internet possible.” But the sad truth is that Cole himself was the first to hurl the threat of a frivolous lawsuit against a website—and with far less justification.

365 Days of Campus Watch

A year ago, and one week after the launch of Sandstorm, Daniel Pipes launched another website: Campus Watch. How well I remember. My endorsement of Campus Watch appeared in its first press release, and since Pipes happened to be traveling in Canada, I was the one who got inundated with calls from journalists asking just what Campus Watch intended to do. I dodged the question: I had endorsed Campus Watch on trust, without knowing the direction Pipes would take. I knew only that he had invoked my book, Ivory Towers on Sand, as inspiration for the project.

It wasn’t long before cries of McCarthyism rolled across the land, as a result of the website’s opening gambit: listing a number of professors with especially egregious records. It was a wild start. But a year later, and looking back on it, I can say with certainty (and relief) that my trust in Campus Watch was vindicated. After the initial wave of publicity and protest, it dropped the list of professors, and began to provide two invaluable services to the public.

First, the website has scoured the press, posting everything related to the Middle East politics of American academe. Until Campus Watch, such material accumulated only in the files of organizations and universities. Since Campus Watch, it has been available to anyone. This has made the site immensely popular, to judge from its ratings. And since the Campus Watch site refers traffic to Sandstorm (instead of posting), I know from my own tracker that many of its readers come from universities (dot-edu domains). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people in Middle Eastern studies rely on the site to follow debates about their own field and Middle Eastern matters on campus.

Second, Campus Watch has conducted and published its own research. Many academics feared that Campus Watch would be engaged in espionage in the classroom, because it invited students to send it information. But while students may have helped to alert Campus Watch to problems, the published research of Campus Watch over the last year has been based upon the on-the-record speaking and writing of the professors themselves. The research has been solid and well-documented—the same sort of rigor I try to practice in this column.

In sum, Campus Watch has provided a real service and met a genuine need. And regular visitors to the site cannot but reach the conclusions that animated its launch: first, that the American campus has become an arena in which some professors openly propagandize on Middle Eastern issues; and second, that Middle Eastern studies—the supposed bastion of objectivity—are no exception. Indeed, on some campuses, they are the heart of the problem.

Over the year, I was often amazed by the way some academics and students played up the “menace” of Campus Watch. This reached a disgraceful culmination at York University in Toronto, where a university research center disinvited Daniel Pipes on the spurious grounds that Campus Watch somehow threatened academic freedom. It reached a comic apogee in the completely bogus claim by a UCLA professor that he had been listed by Campus Watch—a crass bid for the sympathy of his fellows. Those criticized by Campus Watch suffered, at worst, bouts of email spamming (quelle horreur!), but charges of McCarthyism and cries of “Down with Campus Watch!” became the convenient rallying cry for a wide range of campus opportunists and poseurs.

The fact is that Campus Watch plays within the rules of legitimate give-and-take. Its gloves are off, but it doesn’t slug beneath the belt. And it more than proved its worth in its first year. That’s because in the build-up to the Iraq war, many professors said and wrote things that perfectly exemplified their complete detachment from the realities of the Middle East and American politics. The statements that caught the headlines—such as the hope expressed by a Columbia professor that “a thousand Mogadishus” befall U.S. forces in Iraq—were not isolated blurtings by way-out extremists. They were extrapolations of ideas and arguments generated by professors in Middle Eastern studies. Thanks to the reporting of Campus Watch, it was possible to see patterns in this patter.

The next step for Campus Watch is to move beyond criticism to foster new alternatives within Middle Eastern studies. Students often write to me, asking where they should study to escape the rigid conformism of the field. The question has no easy answer, but I intend to formulate one, and Sandstorm will be making some endorsements this year. Daniel Pipes, who has taken a seat on the board of the United States Institute of Peace, is now positioned to legitimize and support alternatives in scholarly research. Campus Watch has set its ultimate goal as “the improvement of Middle Eastern studies.” Achieving that will take more than watching for bias. It means watching for promise too.

Life imitates art at UCLA

Back in October, I put together a little parody: a letter from an indignant professor to Campus Watch. In it, the prof rails against the “McCarthyite” website, but winds up begging to be listed on it, so as to boost his tenure prospects.

Now there’s a real-life case of this, with only minor deviations. It takes the form of a memo from Gabriel Piterberg, a professor of Middle Eastern history, to his colleagues in the UCLA history department. After a perfunctionary opening, Piterberg warns of the “intensifying activity of Campus Watch at UCLA and other major campuses.”

Campus Watch is a web site directed by Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, Middle East scholars and activists for the cause of the pro-Israeli lobby in America….The web site itself is a black list of professors whose views are unpalatable to the pro-Israeli lobby and to the current administration. The academic community is advised to be wary of these professors, and students are encouraged to spy and report on what they—and other potential suspects—do in class and publish. As a major academic center with an illustrious tradition in Middle East studies, UCLA is one of the main targets of Campus Watch. [UCLA history professor] Jim Gelvin and I are on its black list.

End of memo. (Incidentally, Piterberg is an Argentine-born Israeli who left the country some years back.)

Now I am not a director of Campus Watch (ten points off right there), and it’s not my place to defend it. I happen not to think the website is a blacklist. Nor do I think the classroom is a clandestine cell or a security agency, whose members are bound by an oath of secrecy. (Professors who treat the classroom as a place of indoctrination and initiation might think differently.) And the notion that there is something wrong when students report what their professors publish—well, it’s been rumored that if you publish something, anyone can read it. Perhaps it’s to keep those “spies” from “reporting” his ideas that Professor Piterberg has been careful to keep his own list of publications short.

But the really comic part comes at the end. Piterberg claims to be on the “blacklist” of Campus Watch. Now for the life of me, I haven’t been able to find his name anywhere on the site. He wasn’t the subject of one of the “dossiers” of the original “egregious eight.” He doesn’t appear on the list of persons who sent in their own names, in “solidarity” with the eight. In fact, Campus Watch hasn’t put out anything about him at all. Same thing with James Gelvin. (I myself have written about Gelvin—not a “listing” but 1,000 reasoned words— and I wrote them not for Campus Watch, but for the journal I edit.)

Finally, as far as UCLA being one of the “major targets” of Campus Watch: until the website posted Piterberg’s memo, it didn’t even have an entry for UCLA under its “Survey of Institutions.”

So what’s going on here? Life is imitating art. Piterberg desperately wants to be “blacklisted” by Campus Watch, because being “blacklisted” by Daniel Pipes is a credential. He wants all his colleagues on the hallway to slap him on the back, to tell him “We’re with you!” He wants the sympathy regularly accorded to a victim. And so he’s completely fabricated his own “blacklisting.” It’s a self-serving fiction, which marvelously brings my little parody to life.

Poor fellow, he really is too small a fry to warrant his own mention at Campus Watch. Yes, he did appear on a plenary panel honoring Edward Said back in 1998. (His bio reports that he looks back on his participation as “one of the proudest and most emotional moments of his career.”) Yes, this winter he teaches a course entitled “Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel,” which promises to reveal the “construction of Israel’s Zionist foundational myths, their impact on politics, and attendant scholarship, collusive as well as critical.” (In case you miss the coding here, “critical” is anti-Zionist and good; “collusive,” defined by the Oxford Concise as based on “a secret understanding, especially for a fraudulent purpose,” is pro-Zionist and bad.) Yes, he parrots Palestinian “foundational myths” made popular by better-known propagandists and “new historians.” Yes, he’s signed the University of California divestment petition. Even the door of his office is reportedly festooned with an “End the Occupation” poster showing Israelis hauling away a Palestinian. (In academe, you don’t wear your politics on your sleeve, you post them on your office door.)

Yes, yes, yes. Still, I don’t think he deserves the full Campus Watch treatment, because he’s not good enough to be bad enough. He doesn’t write much, his students give him a mediocre rating, and he has no presence in the media. Sorry, Gabi, Campus Watch isn’t looking for profs with bad taste, it’s looking for profs who taste bad—real bad.

I’m not Campus Watch, and it’s not really my business, but if they want my opinion, here it is: ignore the guy. It’ll kill him.

ADDENDUM: Piterberg now insists to The Daily Bruin that he was listed at Campus Watch. Gabi, get over it: you never were. Search the Campus Watch site for your name. There ain’t nothin’ here but your own memo and your name at the bottom of a couple of petitions that you signed yourself.