List Me or Else

The following was reportedly retrieved from the bottom of the mailbag of Campus Watch.

Dear Campus Watch,

I am outraged that you are listing professors with whose views you take issue. This is an appalling McCarthyite tactic, which is designed to shut people up and stifle free speech. It is a serious infringement of academic freedom, of the sort academe hasn’t witnessed since the terrible 1950s. You can be sure that I will be urging the American Association of University Professors, the Middle East Studies Association, and any association that includes Joel Beinin, to pass a resolution of condemnation against your despicable website.

Having said that, I notice that my name has been omitted from your list. This causes me considerable angst. For some years now, I have been more Palestinian than the Palestinians in advocating their rights—their right to a state, their right of return, their right to preferential campus parking. And there’s more. I’ve taken the lead on my campus in showing respect for Islam. In my noon class, there is even a prayer break, and the two sections are divided into male and female. And I have invited Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Sami Al-Arian to speak, all on the same subject: “America’s War of Aggression against [speaker: please fill in the blank].”

So just what do I have to do to get on your list? I’ll be coming up for tenure in a couple of months, and a listing on Campus Watch would really help me out. I have a patchy publications record, although I’ve signed an impressive number of petitions. (In our department, we have a special section on our c.v.’s for “petitions signed.” It’s got the same weight as a co-publication.) Problem is, ever since Campus Watch appeared, getting listed there trumps everything else. My departmental chair has told me quite bluntly that without an entry at Campus Watch, my file will be borderline. Some of my senior colleagues are also cold-shouldering me. They see my omission as a sign of a certain lack of commitment to the profession.

In short, by leaving me off, you’ve effectively blacklisted me. It’s a notorious McCarthyite tactic, for which I intend to propose that Campus Watch be condemned at the next annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors, the Middle East Studies Association, etc.

Unless, that is, you include me.

Please?

Sincerely,

John Jones (Abu Courtney)
Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Narratives
Center for Middle Eastern Studies (excluding Israel)
Lower Michigan University
Dar al-Harb

UPDATE: I’m informed that this letter has been posted on at least one other site, on the presumption that it’s authentic. It’s a parody, folks. I’ll let you guess who wrote it.

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 Salon.com, “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.

Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Campus Watch

The Middle East Forum yesterday launched Campus Watch, a project to follow the more absurd doings in Middle Eastern studies and some of the pernicious Middle East-related activity of university and college faculty. I think it’s a great idea, and an overdue one. As I asked in an endorsement of the project that appeared in its press release, “Who will ‘guard the guardians’, making certain the American public gets a fair return on its new investment [in Middle Eastern studies]? Campus Watch is a timely initiative. Academe needs freedom, but it also deserves the same critical scrutiny as government and the media.”

Just for the record, I’m proud to be associated with the Middle East Forum as editor of its print journal, but I am not involved in the selection of emphases over at Campus Watch. A press report today gave two examples of the type of hot-button issues that will get the attention of the project: the “American jihad” commencement flap at Harvard last spring, and the summer controversy over the Qur’an reading assignment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Personally, I thought the Harvard affair was a storm in a teacup, and I was not particularly bothered by UNC freshmen reading the Qur’an. If you want to know what I think is truly egregious, read my Professors and Pundits column in the Middle East Quarterly, which Campus Watch was good enough to include on its site.

Of course, the establishment of Campus Watch will give rise to howls of protest from the tenured ranks. The other day, I heard someone say about the Saudis that there is nothing they like less than to be talked about by others. It struck me that this is just as true for the extended royal family of Middle Eastern studies. Now the fact is that there is nothing on the Campus Watch website that isn’t already in the public domain. The “Dossiers” on individual scholars and institutions turn up less than a Google search. (One hopes these dossiers will be filled out, and that new ones will be added.) No matter: the mere fact that someone has bothered to organize freely available information in this way will give rise to paroxysms of protest.

Well, academic colleagues, get used to it. Yes, you are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you’ve also posted, will be scrutinized. Your websites will be visited late at night. And to judge from the Campus Watch website, the people who will do the real watching will be none other than your students—those young people who pay hefty tuition fees to sit at your feet. Now they have an address to turn to, should they fall victim to intellectual malpractice.

I wish Campus Watch well.

In March 2004, Steven Heydemann wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, selectively quoting this entry to draw a comparison between myself and Saddam’s secret police. I wrote this response at Sandbox.

Web cop. Heydemann in the Trib: “Invoking tactics more common to the former Iraqi regime than to a democracy, [Kramer] warned professors that their Web sites would be ‘visited late at night’ to police their content. ‘Yes, you are being watched,’ Kramer wrote on his Web site.” Compare that to my actual words (emphases added): “The mere fact that someone has bothered to organize freely available information will give rise to paroxysms of protest. Well, academic colleagues, get used to it. Yes, you are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet, and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you’ve also posted, will be scrutinized. Your websites will be visited late at night.” Google ’em and they cry McCarthyism. In our open society, it’s my right–and yours–to access anything on the web, at any hour. Heydemann, like the Baath, fears what information might do. I guess he worked too long on Syrian authoritarianism.
Sun, Mar 14 2004 6:15 pm