Washington News Forum

*****We stand for freedom. That is our conviction for ourselves; that is our only commitment to others. John F. Kennedy***** ****** Email: newsfromwashington@yahoo.com

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The New McCarthyism by Juan Cole


Friday 22 April 2005

A witch hunt against a Columbia professor, and the New York Times'
disgraceful support for it, represent the gravest threat to academic
freedom in decades.

A member of the U.S. Congress calls for an assistant professor at a
major university to be summarily fired. The right-wing tabloid press
runs a series of vicious attacks on him, often misquoting him and
perpetuating previous misquotes. Opinion pieces attacking "tenured
radicals" and questioning professors' patriotism use him as their
centerpiece. All of these attacks are spurred by a propaganda film
made by an advocacy group, in which anonymous accusations are made and
the professor is not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

It is not 1953, the Congress member is not Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and
the professor is not being accused of being a communist. No, it is
2005, the Congress member is Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and the
professor is being accused of being anti-Israel.

The lesson for academics, and American society as a whole: McCarthyism
is unacceptable except when criticism of Israel is involved.

The targeted professor is Joseph Massad, of the Middle East Languages
and Cultures Department at Columbia University. Massad is the author
of "Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan"
(Columbia University Press, 2001), and of a forthcoming book treating
the sexual depictions of Arabs in colonial literature, "Desiring
Arabs." He is well-published, and his first book received rave reviews
in journals such as Choice and the American Historical Review. His
career would have been no more controversial than that of any academic
historian working on Argentina or Uganda, had he not been a
Palestinian-American teaching about Israel and Palestine in New York
City. Nor, had he been critical of Argentinean or Ugandan policies,
would any eyebrows have been raised in the United States.

The attacks on Massad, and two other professors in the department,
were led by off-campus right-wing Zionist organizations aligned with
Israel's Likud Party - notably a murky Boston-based organization
called "the David Project," which produced the film in which the
accusations were made. (In fact, according to an in-depth report by
Scott Sherman in the Nation, there is no single "film"; at least six
versions exist, and it has never been screened for the public. When
the Nation asked to view it, the David Project refused to make it
available. Its head, Charles Jacobs, also refused to provide details
to the Nation about the group's financial backers or its ties to
professional pro-Israel lobbyists.)

Almost none of the allegations against Massad (anti-Semitism,
mistreatment of students, likening Israel to Nazi Germany) came from
students who had taken his courses. In the most serious case, an
allegation that Massad angrily told a student, "If you're going to
deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can
get out of my classroom," the charge was corroborated by one other
student and one auditor, but three other individuals present said they
had no recollection of the episode taking place, and it did not appear
in Massad's teaching evaluations.

Columbia president Lee Bollinger appointed an ad hoc faculty grievance
committee to look into the accusations. After a lengthy investigation,
the committee issued a report. It found Massad not guilty of
anti-Semitism or of punishing pro-Israel students with poor grades.
(Indeed, it singled him out for unequivocably denouncing
anti-Semitism.) In the case of the incident described above, it found
it credible that "Massad became angered at a question that he
understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and
that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that
Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she
did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her
query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question
merited harsh public criticism." In his response to the report, Massad
denies that this incident took place, pointed out logical fallacies in
the report's reasoning, and criticized it for failing to connect the
charges with the organized political campaign against him.

Although it was little noted in the press, the report did indeed
acknowledge that Massad in particular and the department in general
had been the target of an ongoing campaign of intimidation. It noted
that for several years, after pieces appeared in the tabloid press
blasting the department as anti-Israel, many non-students, clearly
hostile and with ideological agendas, had been attending classes in
the department, interrupting lectures with hostile asides and
inhibiting classroom debate. One individual began filming a class
without permission. Chillingly, the report noted, "Testimony that we
received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good
reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring
his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide
information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him."

Whether the disputed charges against Massad, fomented by outside
groups with obvious agendas, merited a major investigation by Columbia
is a matter of debate. Many students and faculty at Columbia believe
the investigation should never have been launched in the first place.
Having undertaken the inquiry, however, the ad hoc committee
rightfully understood that its charge was narrow - that its mandate
was to investigate "conduct": that is, behavior and "civility," not
views. To prescribe some views and ban others would contravene the
most deeply held values of academic life. As the report noted, "We are
committed, individually and collectively, to the right of all members
of the Columbia community to hold and espouse a range of opinions,
including those that make others uncomfortable. We focused our
attention on conduct, and on the relationship between that conduct and
the obligation for all of us to maintain a civil and tolerant learning

Even the narrow charge is problematic. The line separating "views" and
"conduct" is difficult to demarcate in any objective way, and the
place of "civility" in university teaching is not self-evident. In the
film "The Paper Chase," John Houseman played the curmudgeonly
Professor Kingsfield, who routinely used personal humiliation of
first-year law students as a pedagogical tool. Whether one agrees that
such a method is useful or valid, it is certainly the case that the
Kingsfield character was modeled on real-life professors, some of whom
inspired great loyalty in their students, who felt well-served by some
sharp words when they were guilty of woolly thinking. The notion of an
ad hoc grievance committee investigating John Houseman for suggesting
that students' heads are full of mush is faintly ridiculous, but it is
the sort of procedure to which Massad was subjected.

From all accounts, Massad is a passionate and outspoken but fair and
dedicated teacher. The Nation quotes a doctoral student in Massad's
department as saying, "In Massad's class, the most prolific
contributors to class discussion were students who disagreed with him,
and many did not hesitate to interrupt him to make their point." The
ad hoc report noted: "Outside the classroom, there can be little doubt
of Professor Massad's dedication to, and respectful attitude towards,
his students whatever their confessional or ethnic background or their
political outlook. He made himself available to them in office hours
and afterwards. One student, critical of other aspects of his
pedagogy, praised his "warmth, dynamism and candor" and his unusual
accessibility and friendliness. One of the group of students who
questioned him regularly and critically in class told us of their
friendly relations outside class where their discussions often
continued. A student who has complained that he was mocked in class by
Professor Massad in the spring of 2001, was still in email contact
with him one year later."

One would have thought that the ad hoc report would have closed the
door on this whole sorry affair. But almost worse than the McCarthyite
accusations was the response of the New York Times. Incredibly, the
Times slammed the ad hoc committee for not being inquisitorial enough.
Not satisfied with an investigation of conduct or classroom civility,
it wanted Massad's views put under the microscope. The Gray Lady
apparently wanted him sent for reeducation, for all the world as
though he were a Right Deviationist during the Chinese Cultural
Revolution and as though America's newspaper of record were a Maoist

The Times' editorial read, "But in the end, the report is deeply
unsatisfactory because the panel's mandate was so limited. Most
student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about
allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the
part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the
quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow
up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly
rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only
hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than
it has heretofore."

The New York Times editorial is among the more dangerous documents
threatening higher education in America to have appeared in a major
newspaper since the McCarthy period, when professors were fired for
their views on economics. (At the University of Michigan in the 1950s,
two professors were fired for belonging or having belonged to the
Communist Party, and one professor was let go for favoring
"Scandinavian economics.") "Quality of teaching" is one thing - no one
defends unqualified teachers or mere propagandists. But no substantive
allegations regarding the poor quality of scholarship, or "lack of
rigor" in the department, have been made against Columbia's Middle
East department - for the simple reason that such claims have no
foundation. The Times' invocation of "scholarly rigor" is really a
thinly veiled demand that professors follow what it defines as an
acceptable, "fair" pedagogical line.

But as soon as the "fairness" of views is made the criterion for
retaining a teacher, the door is opened to witch hunts and chaos. No
two students will agree on what is a "fair" view of a controversial
issue. The substantial Arab-American community of Dearborn, Mich., not
to mention many liberal American Jews, would probably find almost
every course taught in political science departments in the United
States on the Arab-Israeli conflict to be hopelessly biased against
the Arabs and Palestinians. Why are they less worthy arbiters than the
editorial board of the New York Times?

When I have taught the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the
University of Michigan, I have had fair numbers of Arab-Americans,
Muslim-Americans and Jewish-Americans in my class. My class
evaluations have overall been good to excellent, but I always have a
handful complaints from both sides. Some Arab-Americans blast me for
naively accepting key claims of Zionism when I argue for Israel's
right to exist. Some Jewish students stridently insist that Jerusalem
belongs solely to Israel and that is that.

The fact is that you will never get agreement on such matters of
opinion, and no university teacher I know seeks such agreement. The
point of teaching a course is to expose students to ideas and
arguments that are new to them and to help them think critically about
controversial issues. Nothing pleases teachers more than to see
students craft their own, original arguments, based on solid evidence,
that dispute the point of view presented in class lectures. That is
why the New York Times editorial is so wrong, and so dangerous.
University teaching is not about fairness, and there is no body
capable of imposing "fair" views on teachers. It is about provoking
students to think analytically and synthetically, and to reason on
their own. In the assigned texts, in class discussion, and in
lectures, the students are exposed to a wide range of views, whether
fair or unfair.

Elected bodies throughout the United States, dominated by the
Christian right, are now considering radical programs such as imposing
the teaching of "intelligent design" in biology classes, or abolishing
academic tenure (the practice of not firing professors for their
views). Even Congress has succumbed to the pressure: The House of
Representatives passed an outrageous bill, HR 3077, mandating that
area studies programs that receive federal money must "foster debate
on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives" - a heavy-handed
attempt to mandate pedagogy that supports the American administration
in power and supports Israeli policies uncritically.

The New York Times is a bastion of liberalism and Enlightenment values
in an increasingly hysterical and intolerant time. But it has lent
this burgeoning movement legitimacy by calling for official oversight
of views in the classroom. Its editors should stop to consider that
any society that censors Joseph Massad's teaching is unlikely to stop
there. The next step will be to censor the newspapers as well.
"Unfair," "liberal" views such as those apparent in many New York
Times articles and editorials may be put under scrutiny by the same
sort of people who want a party line installed at Columbia.

Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian
history at the University of Michigan and the author of Sacred Space
and Holy War (IB Tauris, 2002).


Post a Comment

<< Home