Posted by sepoy on April 11, 2006 · 5 mins read

Today's CHE has the pseudonymous Leah Bowman writing about the dangers, nowadays, of teaching or speaking about the "humanitarian costs of the occupation on Palestinians and the necessity of a just political solution". Well, the right-wing politico-blogo-sphere kinda dangers at least.

Charging Middle East scholars with "anti-Semitism," "liberal bias," and "support for terrorism" has become (in fashion parlance) the new black of right-wing political discourse. Entire Web sites are devoted to exposing academics with expertise on the Middle East as dangerous radicals who pose a threat to the young minds of America. I have seen many of my professors, colleagues, and friends over the past few years placed on such blacklists.

The message to those of us who believe there must be room for ethical and reasoned debate on American involvement in Iraq, on the Israeli occupation, and on the war on terror has never been clearer: We are watching you. And we're going to take you down. I never thought I would be immune to it. I just thought I would have a little more time before it happened to me.

In a sense, the intense uproar over Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's recent paper on the Israel Lobby seems to underscore this point [if you are really out of loop, click here and then this]. A number of observers noted that the reaction against the paper was largely of the 'They be Anti-Semitic' nature, with very few people actually engaging with the paper [um, pretty weak] itself. One would, not irrationally, surmise that anyone of a lesser pedigree to these scholars would naturally get buried. Put into the mix the treatment given to Khalidis and Massads by the Horowitzes and, well, dang, no one could be saying anything about Israel. Right?

Of course I am in favor of critical thinking, academic freedom and apple pie. I would even venture so far afield as to say that a pro-Israel fellow should be able criticize the rise of Hamas or proclaim the corruption of Palestinian Authority without fear that he or she won't get invited to the annual punch-bowl session at MESA. Freedom for all ideas in this intellectual market, surely. So, if there truly is a chilling effect on the production of critical scholarship on the Middle East then we should all be concerned. Except, I have two problems: One, I am so dang tired of anonymous alarmists [que Ivan the Tribble] at the CHE. There may be good venues for Leah Bowmen to remain hidden but a column on right of speech and critical practices is _not_ it. If the CHE couldn't find a MESA scholar willing to put their name to that, then, don't print it. It is not as if this is some bombshell whistle-blowing action. Oh, yeah, Campus Watch and Freeper Net are evil. Thanks for the newsflash. And it is not as if Leah Bowmen has some on-campus reasons to remain anonymous: " My departmental colleagues have been supportive, both personally and professionally. " So what's the harm, LB? You already got the nasty emails. Why not show us that the world "is a messy and complicated place; a place that is not easily reducible to simple political platitudes or clichés about 'us' and 'them.'" by standing up for your convictions. As a scholar. Two, there is no evidence that Campus Watch or whatever have actually hindered scholarship. This being a lazy blogpost, I can only say that a quick glance at the IJMES table of content finds articles on Israel in Nov 2005, May 2005, Feb and Nov 2004. Some look dangerously critical, even. Sure, Alan Dershowitz tried to stop Norman Finklestein's book - except - it got published. Khalidi too. Published. Critical of American Empire! Juan Cole. Famous. So, can we stop with the breathless alarmism and get serious? It simply detracts. And don't say that us South Asianist don't have similar problems. Ask Vinay Lal or Wendy Doniger. So, what's a young, untenured scholar to do? Stay tuned.

update [Apr 17]: Apparently Leah Bowman has been outed.


PDCS | April 11, 2006

Speaking of what young, untenured scholars need to do (or for that matter, eminently employable scholars or tenured scholars), sepoy already stated it succintly: stand up for our convictions openly. I would add two more requirements: dignity and civility. If the intellectual marketplace, as Sepoy characterized our work arena, finds that unacceptable, then let us switch professions and sell insurance. or grow coconuts.

Land of Lime Unfinished | April 11, 2006

[...] But I want to throw away my notes all this along with my AAS ‘lowlights’, which can only be shared at the risk of committing professional suicide. Perhaps, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, given the depressing state of Conferences and in general, of the intellectual market place. Read Sepoy on the dangers of remaining silent or even writing anonymously. [...]

al-zabaniya | April 12, 2006

Well said. And something that needed to be said. But I can't help wondering where the punch-bowl session at MESA is, as I never seem to be able to find it.

elizabeth | April 13, 2006

While I entirely agree that the anonymity thing is very silly & counterproductive (publish my opinion, CHE, I'll sign my name!), I still disagree with your contention that Campus Watch et al have not "hindered scholarship"--of course they haven't managed to censor IJMES or halt the publication of Khalidi, or even get Joseph Massad fired. The formal attributes of scholarship--publication, tenure, etc- remain basically uncompromised. But I think the campaign has had a pernicious effect on people's willingness to do some of the outreach/teaching stuff that I think is central to scholarship as a broader 'job'--from taking on controversial topics in class, to speaking to the media, to other forms of activism. Esp. after the Columbia mess, there seems to be an unfortunate siege mentality in ME studies here (in definite contrast to the UK). It's all very well to say, suck it up and just delete the hate mail, but for a lot of people, dealing with such attacks (on top of everything else on one's academic/work plate) is daunting, and is enough to keep them from taking a more active stance. (Not everyone can be a Juan Cole, alas.) Crying wolf and staying anonymous is no help, but I also don't think we should accept that this kind of bullshit as a normal cost of doing business. Plus there's the continual attempts to subject federal funding to political oversight committees, which could do actual direct damage (as it has in scientific fields such as sexual health research). On the bright side, I think a lot of people are increasingly inclined to fight back--at MESA there was some very good discussion about getting serious WRT to media outreach in particular. Though sadly, like al-zabaniya, no punchbowl that I could see. (also: yes, Lal, Doniger, Thapar, etc have suffered similar attacks, but the attempts to discredit whole departments (as at Columbia), or MESA/ME studies in the US in general, seems to me to go beyond that, & has nasty echoes of the assault on China/East Asia specialists in the 50s. The idea is not just to silence a particular speaker, but to tarnish the majority of the people who work in the field with the anti-American/anti-Semitic brush, and thus discredit them in the public debate about policy towards the region.)

sepoy | April 13, 2006

Fair enough, elizabeth. To be clear, my idea of scholarship is one within which outreach is fundmental. I agree that individuals have varied responses to the type of bullying that CampusWatch can offer. I guess, that is why, I stressed that LB had good support at his/her institution. After all, none of us are scholars in vaccum. Still, I take your point. About SA/ME: the Hindutva crowd def. paints the_entire_American academy as left/godless attacks - you can see this in the California textbook mess recently. So, the tactics are the same as ME though, less intensive. But, if this Federal oversight thing ever actually happen it will effect all of the area-studies.