Middle East studies in the News
CU Faculty To Speak on Iraq War at Teach-in
by Margaret Hunt Gram
More than thirty prominent Columbia professors are planning to take over Low Library for a teach-in on what they call "the current crisis."
A great plurality of views will be represented, the organizing professors say. The sole common thread is a fierce opposition to a pre-emptive American war on Iraq.
The teach-in will take place on March 26, the Wednesday after students return from spring break. It will begin at 6:00 p.m. and continue indefinitely into the night.
"There wasn't any great plan or organization," said DeWitt Clinton Professor of History Eric Foner, one of the three organizers of the event. "It's just a group of faculty deciding that something ought to be done. So we got together and we said, let's do it."
The group has come together in less than a week, spearheaded by Professor of Political Science Jean Cohen, Professor of History Victoria deGrazia, and Foner. After recruiting several other University professors for an organizing committee, they invited colleagues from all over the University to speak on whatever related topics they chose.
"We want to make a statement before we go to war," Cohen said, noting the speed with which the teach-in effort is coalescing. "It's a statement that the press--the world--should know about. And yes, it's quick--but, well, events are moving quickly."
Foner made plain that the faculty involved in the teach-in are not asking the University to endorse it.
"It's not an issue of support or lack of support," he said. "We are able as faculty to use Low Rotunda, and they're perfectly cooperative in allowing us to do that."
The participant pool is limited to tenured faculty.
"We feel that untenured people--and people who are on green cards or don't have American citizenship--are in some significant danger, now, of judgment," deGrazia said. "Therefore, [we invited] tenured faculty, who are in very secure positions."
"Tenure is a gift to give faculty free speech, and it's our responsibility to exercise it," she said.
Bruce Robbins, a professor of English who will speak at the teach-in, also felt a sense of duty.
"Getting an education is a privilege, and there are responsibilities that come with that privilege," he said. "One of those responsibilities is to take advantage of the tools you've been given."
All of the invited professors have been receptive. Other than those who will be out of the city that evening, every faculty member invited has agreed to speak. Because there will be so many participants, each will be allotted ten to fifteen minutes.
DeGrazia will use her portion of the program to discuss the changing balance between the use of American cultural influence in the world and the straight use of military force.
"Why such a drastic shift from talking about the use of soft power--McDonalds, AID programs, peace core type programs--to using hard power, unilateral foreign policy, force of arms, imposition of new kinds of government?" she asked.
Cohen will address related concerns.
"I feel that [this war] threatens 45 years of buildup of international institutions, many of which this government has withdrawn from in any case--we didn't sign on to Kyoto, we didn't sign onto the International Criminal Court of Justice--and I find this very disturbing," she said.
Robbins will speak on his concerns about the international consequences of American war with Iraq, particularly pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I'm worried...that the Sharon government will take advantage of all the chaos, if America attacks Iraq, to throw more Palestinians out--to do ethnic cleansing," he said. "And basically, that would be a real disaster."
Zainab Bahrani, Associate Professor of Art History and Archaeology, will speak about a concern more specific to her academic specialty: the preservation of Iraq's many important archeological sites.
"My main concern is for human lives," she said, citing the UN's estimate of half a million casualties. "However, I am also an archaeologist, and I believe that ... Babylon and Ninevah are sites of world cultural heritage. They ought to be protected."
Professor George Saliba, Professor of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, will address opposition to a war that he believes sets a dangerous precedent.
"Democracy can only flourish when every one has a chance to speak his mind," he said. "In this instance, I hope to have a chance to say no to a war that I think is...criminal to the thousands of children of Iraq who will be evaporated as collateral damage should it take place."
Several professors, including Foner, said that they hope the teach-in will suggest answers to questions that the media has failed to address.
"The media in this country has done a poor job explaining how we got to the brink of war," Foner said. "I think that questions about civil liberties have been poorly covered in the newspapers and media. I think some of the deeper ramifications of events and the way in which foreign policy has changed in the last few years, have not been adequately discussed in public."
Professor Todd Gitlin, who teaches both at the Journalism School and in the sociology department, will speak specifically about the media's role in covering the crisis, asking difficult questions of his own journalistic colleagues.
"Has the media properly primed us? Are we collectively asking the right questions? Are we intelligent? I'm very critical," Gitlin said. "...In the most concise way possible, I'm going to try to explain why a society drenched in media is so ignorant."
Cohen said that many of the professors' participation will be informed by teach-ins they attended nearly forty years ago as college students protesting the war in Vietnam.
"The analogy is scary, because we then felt that it was an unjust war, as we do now--and it lasted a very long time," she said.
Foner elaborated on the parallel, saying that as with the potential war in Iraq, "people knew very little about Vietnam." He said that a current dearth of information about the Iraq war necessitates a teach-in that is "primary function is educational and explanatory."
But professors also cited significant differences between the Vietnam war and the potential war in Iraq.
Cohen said that as a student protesting the war in Vietnam she had never feared for her security. She had more anxieties, however, about attending the March anti-war protests in New York. "This time, I actually had second thoughts. If a citizen can be labeled an enemy alien and have no habeus corpus, this is a very disturbing thought," she said.
Like the teach-ins of the Vietnam war, the primary purpose of this teach-in will be to bring together a wide range of views on a variety of topics related to the prospect of war on Iraq.
"This is a postmodern war," deGrazia said. "No single explanation seems to explain it. It becomes so important, then, to bring in expertise on all possible subjects."
The teach-in's real purpose, Foner added, "is to get people concentrated on the crisis--not to tell them what to do, but to get people to think more deeply and seriously about all the things that are going on right now."
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