Middle East studies in the News
Dead White Men [on Columbia, Edward Said, Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El Haj, James Russell, et al.]
by Emmet Trueman
Columbia University is a magnificent classical revival campus deeply in thrall to the obsolete ideas of dead white men. The names of Homer, Herodotus, and Plato are carved above the colonnade of Butler Library, and, on sunny afternoons under the benign gaze of the classically-draped goddess of wisdom, members the Young Spartacus League gather to encourage the workers of the world to unite. Someone should tell the little dears that Marxism is dead.
At Columbia, the dead white men who dominate the campus are not Homer, Herodotus, and Plato, but Michel Foucault, Karl Marx and Edward Said. It is the faculty, not the students, who police the campus looking for heretics to burn, and while it is understood that some colleagues will be a little soft on Marxist orthodoxies, no dissent from the dogmas of post-colonialism is allowed.
Post-colonialism, the Gospel According to Saint Edward, is the late Edward Said's theory that all problems in the third world are the fault of Western imperialism. The theory was first put forward in Said's now thoroughly discredited book, Orientalism. As with other Holy Books, the Gospel According to Saint Edward cannot be supported by evidence. It is the kind of revealed truth that requires justification by faith alone.
A portrait of Saint Edward hangs behind the cash register at Labyrinth, the store where most Columbia course books are sold. Although many distinguished scholars have taught at Columbia, his is the only portrait on the wall. Said's doctrine is so hegemonic that it is unlikely that any student who fails to pay footnoted obeisance to Saint Edward can now earn a PhD in the Humanities or Social Sciences on this campus. It is certain that only candidates who worship at his shrine have a prayer of being appointed to a Columbia professorship in literature, anthropology, political science, art history, or most fields of history.
Consider the fulsome bows to the greatness of Saint Edward and the Saint Michel Foucault in the books published by this year's candidates for tenure at Columbia and Barnard.
Joseph Massad, candidate for tenure in History, writes in the acknowledgments section of Colonial Effects; the Making of National Identity in Jordan: "From Edward Said, I learned much of what I know about culture, representation and empire. I began reading Edward Said when I was a freshman in college. I only met him eight years later. His work has had the greatest influence on my intellect and my work… To him, I owe much gratitude, both professional and personal."
Nadia Abu El Haj, candidate for tenure in anthropology, writes in Facts on the Ground; Archaeological Practice and Territorl Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, "Deeply influenced by the writings of Michel Foucault and often mediated through the influence of Edward Said's pathbreaking book, Orientalism (1979), questions of knowledge have become central to debates over the nature of colonial rule and its modes of power. An expanding literature that focuses on questions of knowledge and power in the constitutions of European nation-states and their colonial regimes has levied two fundamental challenges. First, as Edward Said has eloquently argued, the objectivity of knowledge and the "alleged universalism" of its modern disciplines was "Eurocentric in the extreme" and rooted in a specific history of imperialism and its attendant imagination and institution."
As Abu El Haj continues, it becomes apparent that the chief European ideas that this young scholar rejects on the grounds that they are "deeply implicated" in the European imperialist project are "science" (p.278) and "scientific method." (p.8)
Columbia sometimes enacts a charade of pretending to consider appointing distinguished scholars who do not worship Saint Edward. Four years ago James Robert Russell, the Mashtots of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, decided, for personal reasons, to apply for a vacant chair in Armenian studies at Columbia.
The job is still open, apparently because of the difficulty of finding an applicant who is both a committed disciple of Saint Edward and a bona fide scholar of Armenian history and culture.
Nor is the problem of dogmatic devotion to obsolete ideas limited to Middle Eastern Studies. For many years, Barnard College Professor Dennis Dalton, a brilliant lecturer and renowned expert on Gandhi, has taught one of the most popular courses at the university, Political Theory I & II, 1013x, 1014y. Campus lore has it that the New York City Fire Department shows up at the beginning of the semester to clear out the unregistered students crowding the back of the lecture hall to the point of creating a fire hazard. Dalton teaches that unarmed, passive resistance is the sovereign answer to the use of force.
In recent years students puzzled by Dalton's ideas have approached him after class to ask what happens when the group employing violence has no compunctions about mass slaughter of unarmed people. Dalton knows what kind of groups they are asking about. He gets the question so regularly that he has a system in place, a small, outside of class discussion group where students can talk about the political response to implacable enemies. His popular course, meanwhile, remains ideologically pure. Political violence can always be defeated by passive, civil resistance. Every threat can be met and bested with direct non-violent confrontation. The organized murder campaigns of Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda do not exist in his classroom.
To maintain that direct, non-violent civil action is an unfailingly effective response to soldiers armed with machine guns in a world that has produced Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot requires the kind of absolute faith in demonstrably false ideas more commonly associated with religious cults than with university faculties.
Once we have come to the point where scientific method can be formally rejected by an assistant professor on the grounds of its complicity in Western imperialism, and students bringing evidence that the methods of Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden cannot be effectively resisted by direct non-violent confrontation are told that the theory is both perfect and sacrosanct, we might as well close the university and join the Flat Earth Society.
In the 1890's a Yankee sea captain named Joshua Slocum customized a 36' sloop and set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts intent on becoming the first man to complete a single-handed circumnavigate of the globe. Slocum became something of a celebrity as he sailed, greeted by journalists and crowds of the curious wherever he made port. When he tied up for a few weeks at Cape Town, he was invited to meet President Kruger of the Transvaal. The meeting had to be cancelled when Kruger refused to meet Slocum. From Kruger's perspective, to have shaken hands with Joshua Slocum on his voyage around the world would have been to admit that the world was round. Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger knew very well that it was flat. He had no desire to encounter uncongenial facts. He would have been very comfortable on the Columbia faculty.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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