The Ideology Police

Targeting Middle East studies, zealots' 'homeland security' creates campus insecurity

There are many reasons such attacks are working. First, student activism around Israel-Palestine has become intensely polarized on campuses, and it's easy for those who don't follow the bureaucratic intricacies of college life to project their anxiety about the general atmosphere onto the narrow slice of events put on by Title VI-funded centers. What's more, one legacy of the conservative pounding of the campuses through the '90s is the widespread, though suspect, notion that universities are controlled by "tenured radicals." Add that to what Lockman calls an "extraordinarily naive and unsophisticated understanding of how knowledge is produced" and a particularly disrespectful and bizarre image of students as "brainwashable robots," and it's not so hard to buy into the central argument of Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand: that Middle East scholars are scandalously incompetent for failing to predict 9-11 and that students are being irreparably harmed by teachers' anti-American obsessions.

More generally, the Bush administration has made national policy out of not only blaming the messengers, but replacing them when they provide analysis that is ideologically inconvenient. Scientists aren't providing the conclusions about climate change or reproductive health that your constituents like? Undercut and distort their findings. In this atmosphere, Kramer's insistence that Middle East scholars ought to be parroting and promoting government policy sounds perfectly reasonable to Tom DeLay's House.

Columbia's Rashid Khalidi: "This is part of  a wider campaign to intimidate."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Columbia's Rashid Khalidi: "This is part of a wider campaign to intimidate."

Most of all, though, the assault on area studies succeeds because it is based on exaggerations, distortions, and downright falsehoods—a tactic perfected in the culture wars. Here's how it works: Take a few queer and feminist artists, brand them as obscene, and argue that the entire National Endowment for the Arts is contaminated and must be purged. This maneuver puts defenders of the field in the position of arguing that, well, the vast majority of NEA-funded work is not obscene—thus conceding the bogus charge at the core of the attack. That's what happened in the hastily called House hearings where Kurtz sounded the rallying cry against Title VI centers. The primary advocate for the centers was Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the major higher education lobby, the American Council on Education, which ended up supporting the House bill since it was increasing funding for international studies and a few lines were added promising that the advisory board would not interfere with curricula. His testimony essentially echoed Kurtz's assertion that Title VI-funded programs should serve government needs—he just argued that they are already doing so effectively. What didn't get said was that there's a public good in campus debate around this very question.

No one was on hand at the hearings to refute the way Kurtz twisted what he presented as fact. To cite just one example, Kurtz railed against the Kevorkian Center for "extremism and lack of balance" in responses to 9-11 from affiliated scholars that the center posted to its website. He excoriated Ella Shohat, an Israeli-born professor of art and public policy at NYU, because she "criticizes America's 'crimes' of 'oil driven hegemony' and America's 'murderous sanctions against Iraq.' " But here's the full passage from Shohat: "By the same token, the facts of the imperial policies of the U.S., of oil-driven hegemony in the Gulf, of the murderous sanctions on Iraq, of blind U.S. support for Israeli policies do not turn terrorists into the legitimate avengers of the crimes committed toward populations in the third world in general. Terrorist crimes do not avenge other crimes; they simply add more crimes. A fundamentalist Manichean discourse projects a righteous East pitted against a corrupt and infidel West. Bin Laden's discourse is the demonizing discourse of a zealot, one that turns all Jews, Christians, and Muslims who do not share his interpretations into infidels worthy of death."

There's one more way the attacks on Title VI centers take a page from the playbook of the culture wars: Like those who demanded that English departments dump Toni Morrison from the syllabus and admit only the time-tested "classics," Title VI watchdogs also want to return the campus to an era before the Vietnam War, open admissions, and other seismic events brought critical attention to the tacit conservative politics of the standard curriculum. After all, area studies—programs focused on foreign countries and cultures—began in the U.S. first in the early 20th century as part of church efforts to improve their evangelizing, and then became co-opted for the Cold War. Indeed, Title VI funding began under the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Most famously, as the China scholar Moss Roberts has written, East Asia studies long functioned in tandem with state intelligence services. "Even a small degree of independent-mindedness could destroy a career in Asian Studies," he writes, citing the example of John Service, a scholar drummed out of the academic mainstream for offering "a breath of rationality about the Chinese revolution."

Cleverly, proponents of Title VI oversight paint themselves as the ones excluded from campus discourse today. Looking at a faculty listing of any of the schools with Middle East centers, though, one does not need much time to find Zionists, anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, post-Zionists among them—as well as experts in such fields as medieval Arabic poetry. But there's a deeper, discomfiting question in these postmodern times about how to take on the charge of imbalance, because it requires confronting that slippery, roundly deconstructed concept of truth—or at least, as scholars might prefer, of sound evidence. Would anyone demand that a gay studies program "balance" its offerings by hosting lectures on how homosexuals can be "cured" of their condition? Would Jewish studies be expected to lend its podium to a Holocaust denier? "It's certainly true that the prevailing opinion of people who actually study the modern Middle East is more critical of American and Israeli policies than the policy makers would like," says Stanford University's Joel Beinin, a recent president of the Middle East Studies Association. "You'd think that might lead people to say, 'Maybe those scholars are right.' "

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