Middle East studies in the News
Professors Condemn War in Iraq At Teach-in
by Margaret Hunt Gram
Thirty members of Columbia's faculty presented a six-hour case against the current war in Iraq last night.
In a teach-in at Low Library, the professors spoke on issues related to Iraq, the United States, and the world. Their topics included international law, war crimes, the Bush administration's wartime actions, diplomacy, the media, cultural heritage in Iraq, activism, and the world after war.
In the fabric of diverse views that the speakers held, that sense of responsibility was a common thread. Many of the professors explicitly discussed the responsibilities of academics to act against the war. Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies Hamid Dabashi called them "'A' students," in contrast to the "'C' students" who he says are running the government, while Ruggles Professor of Political Science Ira Katznelson simply referred to "scholars and intellectuals."
Their responsibility has been made even more urgent, many professors said, by a new world order in which an increasingly corporate media is in bed with the military.
Roger Normand, adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs, referred to "the naked open shameless lies that our government is giving us directly through our mass media."
Brigitte Nacos, adjunct professor of political science, compared CNN's war coverage to "real reality television," stating that "the watchdog of government has become its lapdog."
Michael Ratner, a lecturer at the law school and fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, urged the American people to "watch BBC, CBC, anything--but not the media here."
Gary Sick, adjunct professor of international and public affairs, advised students to go to the White House web site and read the National Security document--"instead of watching another horrible round of CNN coverage with embedded reporters."
Some had more specific condemnations of the media. Ratner cited the Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein that allegedly took place in Basra, then declared it a fabrication of the American and British administrations in media. Nacos said that the media has made too much of "freedom toast" and "not enough of the fact that there was no evidence of a connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq."
Yehouda Shenhav, a visiting associate professor of sociology, posed another point of view.
"People are attacking the media, and I don't see the point," he said. "Media coverage is about covering--so they cover this war, and they cover it, and they keep covering it until you can't see anything any more."
The subject most discussed, however, was the war itself. Some described the war as a neocolonial American attempt at world domination.
"This is an administration that mistakes coercive power for consent ... and is willing to flirt with a new form of colonialism," Katznelson said. Shenhav compared the war to "Israeli act of aggression in the West Bank," citing them as "acts of colonialism" led by "crude military men."
Many professors lamented that American foreign relations had failed, and that both the country and its international neighbors would suffer in consequence.
"The current administration, or at least powerful factions within it, welcomed the fact of the collapse of the international system," said Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins professor of history. "Extricating the U.S. from its obligations to the rest of the world has been one of the more important objectives of the right for the past century, and now there is an administration that is willing to do so."
The Bush government's recent actions in Iraq, which some speakers saw as a disregard for international law, were an oft-addressed concern.
"Democracy requires that people adhere to the same rules and norms that they want other people to adhere to," Professor of English and Comparative Literature Bruce Robbins stated. "The thuggery of preemptive war leaves all rules and norms behind.
Taking this doctrine seriously, any nation could claim at any moment that it is threatened by any other and start bombing."
Bush and his administration also took personal blows.
Robbins called them "shameless liars and hypocrites."
Remarked Professor of Journalism and Sociology Todd Gitlin, "The Bush administration, instead of answering reporters' more difficult questions, repeats mantras--9/11, Iraq, 9/11, Iraq--a Pavlovian association on the basis of dubious claims and outright forgeries."
Katznelson stated that "the Bush administration has failed spectacularly--even if it wins this war militarily." He elaborated: "This administration abhors real politics, where outcomes might be provisional and uncertain--the hallmarks of any democracy. ... Let us not accept the erosion of real politics."
Others offered advice to the Bush administration.
"I would be careful in promising wrath, shocking and awesome, to those who dismiss and ignore legitimate election results," Associate Professor of Anthropology Rosalind Morris told the absent Bush. "People might take you seriously and respond."
Civil rights in the United States, in wartime and afterward, was another heavily covered topic.
Marc Van de Mieroop of MEALAC said that war scares him because it is an excuse for the erosion of rights.
"I know that my phone is tapped, that e-mails are read, that mail is opened. I have the sense of unease, the loss of privacy, and also the fear to speak out, to write--will what I say tonight be held against me when I have to appear in court?"
Brinkley was also concerned about surveillance, stating that one of the Bush administration's objectives has been "to enhance government's ability to gather info about citizens while limiting citizens' ability to gather information about their government."
Robbins offered a different approach to coping with the current administration. "Lately, I have taken to sitting around fantasizing about being liberated at any moment by the European invasion," he said. "I figure the Europeans will realize that I live under an unelected government that has no respect for the rule of law, and that nothing short of violence can lead to regime change. Maybe they'll call their operation 'American Freedom.'"
One of the most divisive issue among the participants was patriotism. An exchange over the subject was sparked by Nicholas DeGenova, a professor of anthropology who was a last-minute addition to the program.
"Peace is not patriotic," DeGenova began. "Peace is subversive, because peace anticipates a very different world than the one in which we live--a world where the U.S. would have no place."
"U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy," he said. "U.S. flags are the emblem of the invading war machine in Iraq today. They are the emblem of the occupying power. The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military."
Between DeGenova's condemnation of patriotism and his call for "fragging"--"I wish," he said, "for a million Mogadishus"--his speech provoked many of the professors who spoke later in the night to assert their disagreement.
Robbins, who immediately followed DeGenova, said he believed in a kind of patriotism that was not incommensurable with opposition to the war. As the evening drew to a close, Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton professor of history, described one such type of patriotism.
"I refuse to cede the definition of American patriotism to George W. Bush," Foner said, drawing a cheer from the audience. "I have a different definition of patriotism, which comes from Paul Robeson: The patriot is the person who is never satisfied with his country."
Foner listed great historical patriots who fit that definition: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Jr. They were never satisfied with their country, he said, and "it is in the same spirit as theirs that this teach-in is a great patriotic event."
Dabashi was excited by the teach-in format. "Because there are no answers to our questions about this war, we just get angrier and angrier," Dabashi said. "But this is where the blessed thing called 'teach-in' comes in handy. Tonight, we think for ourselves.
Revenge of the nerdy 'A' students against the stupid 'C' students with their stupid fingers on the trigger."
Barbara Fields, a professor of history whose 10-minute speech was particularly well-received, also emphasized the importance of speaking out.
"Why talk when the war has already begun?" Fields asked.
"Because we must talk. We must talk in order to recover language, including our own, as a vehicle for speaking the truth rather than telling lies and spreading propaganda."
As their 10-minute segments wrapped up, professors urged students to continue fighting against the war.
"Tonight, I'm happy to see you in this room," Ratner said. "But tomorrow, I don't want to see you in a room. I want to see you in the streets, I want to see you on the phones, I want to see you e-mailing, I want to see you out there protesting this war."
Ratner and his colleagues seemed encouraged by the whole day of protest, which also included a 500-student rally and talk of an attempt to occupy Low Library by a few spirited anti-war students.
"What makes me optimistic is the fact that in a few months, we have built up the most major international peace movement I have ever seen," Ratner continued. "And it's one that may stop this war."
Not all professors believed that protest had the potential to stop the war.
"The only way of countering the offensive policy, the empire, that the Bush administration has advocated and acted upon ... is through an appeal to law, chiefly the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations," said Anders Stephanson, professor of history.
Voices in support of the war were absent. While an anti-war rally earlier in the day had drawn around seventy flag-clad war supporters, this event drew few vocal dissenters.
Perhaps those who were the most discontented were the hundreds of students who stood outside in the rain waiting to attend the event. The students could not immediately enter the overflowing rotunda because of fire marshal restrictions. In their anger at the guards who were refusing their colleagues entry, the students shouted repeatedly, "Let them in!"
Hundreds of students spent up to two hours in line, snaking down the stairs, around Alma Mater, and down college walk toward Broadway. All who waited were eventually afforded entrance.
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