Middle East studies in the News
Juan Cole and His Critics
by Jonah Avriel Cohen
Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East and South Asian studies at the University of Michigan, is at the center of acrimonious and highly personal disputes roiling the worlds of academe, politics and blogging. Reportedly under consideration for a professorship at Yale, Cole has charged prominent journalist and blogger Christopher Hitchens with being drunk and violating his privacy when he wrote a critique of Cole's linguistic apologetics for Mahmound Ahmedinejad, president of Iran.
Critics charge that Professor Cole has forsaken a scholarly approach (his expertise is on on nineteenth century issues) in favor of politicized angry writing on the contemporary Middle East. They may have a point.
Look at Professor Juan Cole's recent petition letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, signed by numerous academics. How will the Jewish presidents read this letter? Most likely, not favorably.
Begin with the letter's opening paragraph, which says:
The Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who are knowledgeable about the controversy over the Mearsheimer/Walt article, will certainly agree that some people like eminent political scientist Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University found the article (not necessarily the man) anti-Semitic. But these Jewish presidents will also be aware that the anti-Semitic accusation hardly constitutes the whole of Eliot Cohen's, or numerous other critics, problems with the article. If Cole and the other signatories to the letter wanted to persuade their intended readership that Mearsheimer and Walt are innocent victims of slander, they would have done well in their letter to rebut the many other substantive criticisms of the Walt/Mearsheimer paper – its circular logic; its factual errors; its lack of original scholarship; its mono-causal social science; its unsubstantiated generalizations; its selective use of evidence; its insinuations of dual loyalty; its strawman counterarguments.
By not addressing these criticisms, the letter fails to rebut the reasons public intellectuals have been inclined to think Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites. After all, indisputable anti-Semites like David Duke are thrilled with "The Israel Lobby" article precisely because it employs the same fallacies found in their own neo-Nazi literature – and consequently and unsurprisingly reaches similar conclusions.
Now consider the petition letter's next few statements, which are among the most self-defeating paragraphs in the whole of modern political writing. Juan Cole writes:
What is that supposed to mean? Only the "ethnic Jews" are "over-heated" and "patently unfair" in their charges of racism? By Merrian-Webster's definition, this last sentence is hostile (by insulting Jews as "over-heated" and "patently unfair"). And it is also discriminatory (by suggesting no other ethnic lobby would react passionately to an influential article that they found logically, empirically and morally wrong). Thus, by the very definition provided by Professor Cole, he has penned an anti-Semitic statement. Hardly a persuasive argument when complaining about unfair charges of anti-Semitism, now is it?
Let us move on. Cole and his professors now speak of their emotions, revealing the letter's psychological origins.
Emotions, like fear, rest on subjective beliefs about the nature of the objective world. And when this fear is based on a false belief about the world – such as the false belief that any discussion of the American/Israeli relationship elicits charges of anti-Semitism – it will likely be considered mildly paranoid. The American/Israeli relationship is in fact critically discussed openly and frequently throughout the United States: on the web, in the university, on cable news, in columns, on book jackets, in dedications, on screen, on radio. All over the place. The Jewish presidents may well conclude that what annoys the signatories to this letter is that most Americans, during this free debate, don't agree much with their hostile opinions of Israel.
Nevertheless, Cole's letter goes on to lecture about the nature of democratic debate, all the while continuing to forget to whom his letter is addressing:
Superciliousness toward readers is never a prudent persuasive strategy. After 4,000 years of persecution, and a Jewish cultural tradition that values the study of history, Cole's letter should have assumed Jews know a little something about the term "anti-Semitic" and its use.
Furthermore, before writing the letter, the author should have questioned how his intended audience would feel when other accomplished American Jewish intellectuals are accused of being "profoundly anti-democratic" – as if they were violating the basic values of American society by participating in the democratic debate that Mearsheimer and Walt purportedly requested.
Ironically, it is Cole's letter which intimates hostility towards free expression. Evidently, only some responses should be allowed in this debate, and those responses ought to be the ones with which Cole's squad of professors agrees. That scarcely makes for a "free public debate of all issues" – at least not for the Jews to whom this letter is written.
But let's return to the letter, with its irrational emotional undercurrent of fear. It goes on to say:
And more fear:
Another meaningless fear. Unlike Europe, where anti-racism laws are enacted that prevent the free critical discussion of Islam, publishing offensive anti-Jewish articles is allowed in the United States. In America, violent racist conduct, not offensive thought, is prohibited. You're free to verbally trash Jews or Israel, as Americans like Juan Cole and David Duke often do on their websites.
Of course, as a result, some might exercise their own first amendment rights by choosing not to listen to you; some publications might not wish to publish you; some might call you an "anti-Semite." But none of that means they're hostile to the first amendment. It means they think you're a bigot—something that they're perfectly free to think in the United States.
The letter concludes:
Will the Jewish presidents answer this call? Not likely. In the words of the great Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, this letter speaks at them and not to them. For true dialogue to emerge between an I and Thou, you must speak to your audience, making an honest effort to address what lies deep in them. Calling your audience anti-democratic; telling them their ignorant of fundamental terms that refer to them; claiming they're crying wolf; penning an anti-Semitic sentence—as this letter demonstrates, Juan Cole and his band of professors don't understand the art of persuasion. They ought to consider writing another draft, one without the insults.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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