In a gesture that consolidates the 1990s culture wars, the post-9-11 chill on dissent, and the relentlessness of hawkishly pro-Israel lobbying, the U.S. House voted unanimously last fall to establish an advisory board to monitor how effectively campus international studies centers serve “national needs related to homeland security” and to assess whether they provide sufficient airtime to champions of American foreign policy. Currently the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is considering a parallel provision for its upcoming higher education reauthorization bill. The bill will likely go to the floor in March.
Though it’s just a few paragraphs in an arcane piece of routine legislation reauthorizing a relatively small amount of money to what’s called “area studies,” the advisory board provision represents an ominous offensive against academic freedom and oppositional views. For decades now, since the end of the McCarthy period that saw countless academics expelled from the classroom for their views and international research controlled by a Cold War agenda, the critical assault on left-leaning professors has been launched from books, articles, websites, and media broadcasts—unpleasant enough for the people targeted, but still the stuff of discourse. Even the creepy post-9-11 list of 40 profs accused by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of giving comfort to America’s adversaries turned out to have no teeth.
But the very possibility of legislation sounds old alarms anew. Even if the measure does not make it past the Senate—ranking Democrats on the panel don’t expect it to get much traction—the very idea of ideological feds inspecting campus lecture halls takes the culture wars to a perilous new level.
The seven-member advisory board—which would include two appointees “from federal agencies that have national security responsibility”—would oversee the country’s 118 international studies centers. This year, they shared about $95 million under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Centers may use the funds only for graduate student fellowships, language instruction, and lectures and other public programs. They do not hire faculty or offer courses—traditional departments such as art history or political science do that. The centers then involve local faculty from across the disciplines who have expertise in such areas as Latin America, Russia, Africa, and East Asia. Only 17 of the nation’s international studies centers focus on the Middle East—covering the Arab countries, Turkey, Israel, and Iran—but no one doubts that they are the intended targets of the legislation.
“The priority of those behind this is defending Israel from any criticism,” says Zachary Lockman, director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center at New York University. “They understand that universities are one of the few places where debate and argument take place that cannot be heard in the media or anywhere else.”
Indeed, the most vociferous critics of the centers have been three right-wing Zionist think-tankers : Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution and a columnist for the National Review Online; Martin Kramer, whose screed Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America was published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, whose website Campus Watch posted “dossiers” on professors whom Pipes deemed to hold unacceptable views on Islam, Palestinian rights, and U.S. or Israeli policy. Students were urged to send in reports on teachers who made any dubious remarks.
Kurtz was the star witness in House testimony on the bill last June, when he painted a frightful caricature of area studies programs. He accused them of having “extreme and monolithic” perspectives and “stifling free debate” as they buckle under an insidious “ruling intellectual paradigm” set forth in Orientalism by the late Edward Said, “the most honored and in-fluential theorist in academic area studies today.” Kurtz recommended the government-appointed supervisory body to assure that “over and above questions of peer review, due consideration was given to the national interest.”
Members of Congress did not check to see that, in fact, international studies programs are filled with scholars with a range of contentious views, or that the influence of Orientalism is largely confined to the humanities and even there has been subject to ongoing critique since its publication in 1978. Nor did they systematically investigate any of Kurtz’s other apoplectic charges, among them that professors discourage students from taking jobs with the government. Nor did it matter that international studies centers are already monitored by the Department of Education, to whom they must submit detailed annual reports and from whom they must reapply for funds every three years.
“This is part of a wider campaign to intimidate,” asserts Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia and head of its Middle East Institute. “It won’t work with my generation, but it will discourage younger scholars from going into the field. One of the objectives is to put the universities in an impossible position—either to accept partisan intrusion into academic affairs or just not take the money.” According to Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, the effect will be counterproductive: fewer and fewer students studying Arabic, Pashtu, Turkish, Urdu.
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.
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.’ “