In praise of the LA Times

Did you notice this sentence in a recent story about the Khalidi-Obama video controversy in the Los Angeles Times? It mentioned “[Rashid] Khalidi, a renowned scholar on the Palestinians who in the 1970s had acted as a spokesman for Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Wait a minute—isn’t that “spokesman” claim supposed to be dubious, false, contested? “They’ve falsely called him a spokesman for the PLO,” huffed Jake Tapper, ABC News’ Senior National Correspondent. The bloggers say so too. “Khalidi was not, as the schlock rightwing press charges, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization” (Juan Cole). “The fact that [McCain] repeats the charge that Khalidi was a spokesman for the PLO, a claim that Khalidi denies, and that there is independent reason to think is false—suggests either that he doesn’t know, or that he doesn’t care what the truth is” (Hilary Bok at Obsidian Wings). “Rashid Khalidi, by the way, is not and never was a ‘PLO spokesperson'” (Richard Silverstein). And not all the protest comes from the left. “He never was a spokesman for the PLO” (R. Bruce McColm, who was the president of the International Republican Institute when it dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Khalidi-backed project in the 1990s).

So what gives at the Los Angeles Times? Simple. It was the Times, back in 1976, which first tagged Khalidi as “a PLO spokesman.” And it wasn’t just any correspondent who did it. It was Joe Alex Morris Jr., who at the time headed the newspaper’s Beirut bureau (which he had opened in 1965).

Morris was a legendary Middle East correspondent. Upon his death in Iran in 1979—he was killed while covering the Iranian revolution—the Washington Post wrote that he “was regarded by his colleagues as the dean of American correspondents in the Middle East. For more than a quarter century he chronicled them all, Arabs and Israelis, Farouk and Nasser and Saddam Hussein and the Palestinians, the shah and Khomeini, always insisting on reporting from up front.” In 1968, he won the Overseas Press Club Award for his coverage of the June 1967 war. In 1981, the Nieman Foundation posthumously conferred upon him its award for conscience and integrity in journalism. Since that time, the Foundation has sponsored an annual memorial lecture in his name, delivered at Harvard by an outstanding journalist. (Lecturers have included a who’s who of prominent Middle East correspondents: Tom Friedman, Jonathan Randal, Anthony Shadid, John Burns, George Packer…)

If Morris reported it, then the Los Angeles Times regards it as a fact. In the face of all the self-interested denials of a heated election year, it’s clearly sticking by the 32-year-old reportage of a long-dead correspondent. I find that noble, and if you admire the newspaper for holding back the video, then you should admire it for this as well. Morris was not an interested party when he identified Khalidi as “a PLO spokesman,” he was contemporary with events, and there is every reason to presume that he reported this accurately. The Los Angeles Times hasn’t allowed politically motivated howls to erode its total confidence in Morris and his professionalism.

Plaudits to the Los Angeles Times.

(Footnote: In 1978, the Beirut bureau chief of the New York Times, James M. Markham, likewise wrote that Khalidi “works for the P.L.O.” Let’s see if the New York Times stands by that highly esteemed correspondent—also long dead. For all the evidence of Khalidi’s role as spokesman, now including a 1979 radio documentary, visit my post “Khalidi of the PLO.”)

Meet an anti-Israel agitator

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed by Saree Makdisi, a professor of English lit at UCLA. The headline: “Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers.” The bottom line: there’s a neocon conspiracy against academe, the result of an unholy alliance between conservatives and Zionists.

Since Makdisi threw in my name too, combining an insult with an error, I sent off a response to the paper. I have no idea whether they’ll publish it, but having a website means you always get the last word, so here it is:

Dear Editor,

Saree Makdisi (“Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers,” May 4) purports to establish a linkage between the state-level “Academic Bill of Rights” (SB5 in California), and the federal-level International Studies in Higher Education Act (HR3077 in the last Congress). After falsely associating the two (and calling me a “pro-Israel agitator”), he claims that I am “among the active proponents of the ‘bill of rights’ legislation at the state level.”

This is false. I have never expressed any opinion on the “bill of rights” legislation, and I am not a proponent, active or otherwise, of such legislation.

I have actively supported the International Studies in Higher Education Act (reintroduced in the new Congress as HR509), which Makdisi misrepresents. He quotes the bill to the effect that it would make federally-funded academic programs in area studies “better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.” In fact, the bill speaks much more broadly of improving programs to “better reflect the national needs related to homeland security, international education, and international affairs.” All Americans recognize the need for improvement of our performance in security, education (including foreign languages), and diplomacy. The proposed legislation would encourage just that.

As a professor of English, Mr. Makdisi should be a model of precision and a bulwalk against selective quotation. Alas, as an anti-Israel agitator (in the manner of his uncle, the late Edward Said), he suppresses the truth, and blames the resulting falsehoods on Israel.

Martin Kramer

For evidence that Makdisi is an anti-Israel agitator, read his essay written in memory of Edward Said. It includes this mind-boggling claim: Israel has “actualized all the logics, apparatuses, discourses, and practices associated with the worst, the ugliest, the most violent and draconian forms of European racism.” Read that sentence again. It says that Israel is a Nazi state; it cannot be read any other way. In another essay, arguing for divestment, Makdisi says Palestinians are shot “for stone throwing, for writing, for thinking, and practically just for being Palestinian.”

Makdisi’s white-knuckle fanaticism is actually closer to the line of Joseph Massad than to Edward Said. The difference is that Columbia pays Massad to teach his grievance, whereas Makdisi holds down a day job teaching English romanticism and Blake. But take note: Makdisi is writing his Palestine book, so prepare yourself by reading both essays–war propaganda bordering on hate speech. They don’t leave any doubt just who’s an agitator.

By the way, Makdisi already has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth in op-eds. The LA Times had to publish a correction to an op-ed he did back in November, and which retailed falsehoods about Israel’s security barrier. Any other author might have been banned for that, but when you’re papabile in the Saidian church, people are prepared to look the other way. So they keep publishing him. Will the LA Times clean up the mistakes in Makdisi’s latest performance? Will it publish my letter? We’ll see.

Update, May 7: The LA Times has published my letter, in an abbreviated form. The record has been set straight on the matter of legislation.

Nonsense on Title VI in the L.A. Times

The International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3077) would create an advisory board for Title VI, the federal subsidy program for area (and Middle Eastern) studies in universities. As I’ve argued before, such a board is the very least Congress can do to assure some return on the taxpayers’ investment in these programs. I spoke in defense of the bill on a panel in Washington on November 20, and I post my remarks here. In my address, I dispel some of the way-out notions about the legislation now being propagated on campuses.

Now the issue has cropped up in the national press, in the form of an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by one Paula R. Newberg, identified as an “independent consultant.” The piece is a slick and evasive advertisement for Title VI, the sort that is regularly churned out by the higher education lobby and Saudi ARAMCO. Its bottom line: a board would “seriously diminish” the “capacity of the U.S. to be a responsible world actor.” To make that argument, you have to misrepresent Title VI and H.R. 3077. Our “independent consultant” does this with a lobbyist’s panache for half-truths, falsehoods, and omissions.

So after you’ve read the op-ed, here are the four grievous sins committed by its author.

1. Newberg opens by noting that “for two years, Congress has rightly insisted that the United States needs better foreign intelligence.” True. “One way to obtain it is to train more experts in foreign languages.” True. H.R. 3077, she writes, is “an assault on the very programs that produce these professionals.”

False, because these programs do not produce those professionals. The great bulk of the money goes to fellowships for doctoral students. When The Chronicle of Higher Education spoke to a dozen job-hunting Ph.D.s in Middle Eastern studies in the spring of 2002, not one expressed any interest in government employment. “Academics just aren’t biting,” said one job candidate, as quoted by the Chronicle. “I don’t think running around chasing terrorists is the solution to this problem. Academics have a belief in the power of education to effect change.” The real intelligence professionals—the few men and women who solve problems when the “power of education” fails—are produced elsewhere.

Title VI programs have also shifted their emphasis away from languages. A government-contracted report on Title VI, published in 2000, admitted as much: “Over the years, the original focus on language has been replaced with a much broader mandate for area, international, and international business studies. … functional linguistic competence in the graduates of the nation’s colleges and universities has tended to diminish.” Title VI is failing at precisely the mission Newberg thinks it should fulfill, a fact concealed from the public precisely because there is no board to measure the program against the intent of Congress.

2. Newberg writes that Title VI has produced international knowledge, although “these centers have endured funding cuts.”

False again. As far as I can recall, funding for Title VI over the past decade has never been cut even once. The appropriation has grown every year. More to the point, Title VI received a massive post-9/11 windfall on January 10, 2002, when President George W. Bush approved Congress’s authorization of a 26 percent increase (over $20 million a year) for the program, to meet an “urgent need.” Since 2000, federal funding for area studies centers at universities has ballooned by fifty percent, and funding for fellowships has doubled. The universities are now flush with taxpayers’ money, appropriated on a renewed promise that this will enhance national security. There are more federally-subsidized Middle East centers right now that at any time in America’s history. Is it too much money? Too little? Just the right amount? Maybe that money should go to another higher education program? We’ll never know, unless we have a board with appointees well-positioned to define U.S. needs, and determine whether the program is meeting them.

3. Newberg then casts H.R. 3077 as an attempt by interested parties to foist their Middle East views on academics. For this reason, a board “is utterly impractical, given the polarization of Middle East politics…[N]o politically appointed advisory board is likely to bridge these differences any more than the U.S. has reconciled competing visions of Middle East peace.”

Once more, false. Far from being “utterly impractical,” boards supervise every other comparable federal program. The sister program of Title VI, the Fulbright program, is the mainstay of foreign research for U.S. academics. It has a 12-member board, all of them presidential appointees. The U.S. Institute of Peace has a board of presidential appointees, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has one too. These boards are supervisory, not advisory—they have more powers than the proposed Title VI board. All three support advanced research in international affairs, including the Middle East. Yet they somehow manage to “bridge differences.” The real question is why Title VI, of all these programs, should be exempt from having a board. Of course, you would never know that from Newberg, who forgets to tell you just what an administrative anomaly Title VI has become.

4. Newberg praises Title VI for having introduced thousands of Americans to foreign societies and cultures. If she has a reservation, it is that “some scholars have used this platform to underscore distinctively, occasionally parochial, American views.”

Is this a misprint? It seems to me this should read: “Some scholars have used this platform to underscore distinctively, occasionally parochial, anti-American views.” There is no more systematic abuse of Title VI than the exploitation of taxpayers’ money by professorial activists to fund propagandistic “outreach” activities. All of the instances known to me involve totally one-sided teachers’ seminars and study kits that rail against U.S. policy. Do you think your tax dollars should fund a “critical reader” on 9/11 for K-12 teachers, in which every single reading bashes the United States? Do you think federal subsidies should fund a seminar on the Iraq war for K-12 teachers, addressed by five “anti-war” activists, and not a single supporter of U.S. policy? Professors are sovereign in the classroom, but “outreach” is a federally-mandated activity to reach non-students. As part of the contract, universities undertake to spread knowledge, not propaganda. What is absolutely clear, given that these abuses have continued even as Title VI has come under fire, is that only a board can stop “outreach” outrages.

In sum, the Los Angeles Times has run an op-ed completely detached from reality on campus, which is not surprising, since its author-consultant has no connection to campus. You would think that with 120 subsidized area centers across the country, each one with a director and faculty, a Title VI beneficiary could be found to argue the case against H.R. 3077. But I suppose any one of them would be embarrassed to make the arguments Newberg makes, in the way she makes them—because they are false. But that’s what consultants are for, isn’t it?

L.A. Times Follow-up. Robert Satloff, who was quoted out of context in Newberg’s piece, wrote a letter to the paper, and it has been published. Satloff, after taking the op-ed to task for distorting the bill, adds this:

As a recipient of generous Title VI grants for my own graduate education, I know the value of such funding. I also know how many universities and area-study programs have abused it for purposes far from the noble one for which it was intended, i.e., to advance language proficiency, academic expertise and community awareness of foreign policy issues in the service of U.S. national security interests. The sole purpose of this proposed board is to advise the Department of Education, whose legal responsibility to perform oversight of Title VI recipients remains unchanged by this bill. Since no one compels universities to ask for taxpayer dollars to fund their area-study programs, a little scrutiny over how that money is spent is not too much to ask. That’s not a liberal or conservative idea; it’s a reflection of traditional American fair play.

Well put.