Campus Watch Research
Juan Cole's Crooked Tales of Hormuz
by Winfield Myers
Writing in his well-trafficked blog on Friday, University of Michigan Middle East studies professor Juan Cole illustrates the baleful consequences of the media's reliance on Cole and other Middle East studies professors of his ilk to explain the Middle East to Americans: it makes possible the wide dissemination of a distorted, conspiracy-laden picture of that highly volatile region.
For in just a few paragraphs, Cole proposed or implied that:
Let's take these in order:
1. GOP Fabrication: Cole's lede introduced the element of conspiracy to his post:
So we're to believe that the Bush administration and GOP leadership worked with the top brass in the Navy to concoct this story? Whatever emerges about the how the videotape and audiotape were merged, in light of the USS Cole incident in April, 2000, surely the approach of high speed craft from a hostile power toward US Navy vessels should be taken as a serious potential threat. That a prominent professor of Middle East studies would resort to politicized speculation to explain the event reveals a great deal about the shoddy nature of Cole's analytical methods.
2. NYT Blog: Cole selectively quoted only a single sentence a commenter who called himself "Former SWO" posted at the Times's blog on January 9.
Cole then added his own coda to the comment from "Former SWO":
This leaves the impression that "Former SWO" helped to undermine the US Navy's claim that the Iranians were the aggressors.
Yet this commenter in fact fully accepts the Navy's story that the Iranians were the aggressors; the only doubts he expresses stem from the possibility that the word "explode" may have been uttered not by the Iranians, but by an unknown party with no connection to the encounter. And that is something else entirely.
For example, here's the second paragraph of the comment by "Former SWO":
"Former SWO" then spends three paragraphs detailing how the use of a common UHF frequency among shippers in the Strait of Hormuz—a frequency that often carries "racial slurs" aimed at Filipinos who work in the area—may account for the use of the word "explode" in the transmission that the US Navy presented. That may indeed be the case, but it by no means proves that the Iranians were not acting aggressively, as Cole claims.
In the final paragraph of his comment, "Former SWO" echoes the points his made near the beginning of his post:
Cole quoted selectively to turn the commentary by "Former SWO" from a defense of the main thrust of US Navy's story—that the Iranians acted in a threatening matter that had to be taken seriously—into evidence that the Navy's story was trumped up as part of, as he says in his blog, "a serious error if not a Republican Party fabrication."
3. Believing the Iranian Press: Most Americans, whatever their political persuasion, would likely take the word of the US Navy over that of a state press that acts as little more than a voice for the propaganda and conspiracy theories of Iran's corrupt, theocratic regime. But Cole, like the old apologists for the Soviet Union, readily employs the propaganda of a dictatorship to support his conspiracy theories against his own country.
He moves smoothly from noting the suspicions of the Iranian press in the first sentence, to the language of conspiracy in the second, where he writes of "the Bush administration video" rather than of a "US Navy video."
But if we agree with "Former SWO" quoted above, the threats from the Iranian vessels stemmed from their erratic behavior in close proximity to American ships. Whatever emerges regarding the mixing of the audio and video components of the tape, the threat was real, and yet Cole discounts it.
Cole is a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, the primary umbrella group for academics in the field. That a Middle East studies professor upon whom the press relies for insight into this key region can be so wrong-headed in so many ways—and in a single blog post—bodes ill for efforts to bring supply the American public with accurate, reliable information about the Middle East. Overt biases, a selective reading of sources to support preordained conclusions, an eagerness to believe the press of foreign dictatorships over one's own Navy, and the reliance on crude conspiracy theories will ensure only that consumers of media reports on the region are too often misinformed, and that academic Middle East specialists are further discredited.
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