On January 9th of this year, an Iranian news agency reported that a group of Columbia University “professors and deans of faculties” had made plans to travel to the Islamic Republic to “officially apologize to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” in person. Ahmadinejad, it will be remembered, had visited the university by invitation a few months earlier and against all expectations had received a forthright introduction by President Lee Bollinger. So forthright, in fact, that a group of professors began circulating a petition decrying Bollinger’s behavior as “not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, [but his remarks] allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.” Horror.
Well, according to this petition-signing faculty, criticizing the Iranian madman puts you on the side of the Texan commander-in-chief. It was their own version of “you’re either with us or with the Bush administration.” By their own logic, therefore, where did that put them — being against the American administration and apologetic toward the homosexual-hanging Iranian as they were?
So when news broke from Iran that a group of Columbia academics were planning a trip to Tehran, it was all too believable that the travel agent had made all the plans and it was only left to pack the passport, toothbrush, and knee pads. Though news emanating from Tehran sources is best taken with a huge chunk of rock salt, a person could be forgiven for crediting this one, though to date I’ve not heard any further confirmation. The best lies are purely plausible, and if this were a lie, it was a good one.
The campus is no stranger to moral myopia, of course. And we needn’t go all the way back to the 1930s — when, to cite a famous example, the Oxford Union resolved that “This House will not fight for King and Country,” even as Hitler was pre-heating his ovens — for object lessons.
In more recent times, MIT’s Noam Chomsky has become one of the most famous academics to be willing to travel abroad and tread the line between free speech and treason. In 1970, he trekked to Hanoi, North Vietnam, with a group of “anti-war” activists, where he delivered a speech over North Vietnamese radio. Here’s a peek — at the speech and into the mind and morality of Chomsky and his campus followers:
In the midst of the creative achievements of the Vietnamese people, we came face to face with the savagery of a technological monster controlled by a social class, the rulers of the American empire, that has no place in the 20th century, that has only the capacity to repress and murder and destroy.
We hope that there will continue to be strong bonds of comradeship between the people of Vietnam and the many Americans who wish you success and who detest with all of their being the hateful activities of the American government.
There’s now a wall of black granite in Washington that was still filling with names as Chomsky uttered these words on behalf of the people who were set to fill it.
Fast-forward three decades or so and only the faces and names of the enemies with whom Chomsky chooses to commiserate have evolved. More recently, in 2006, Chomsky made a pilgrimage to Hezbollahland to visit with Iran’s Lebanese proxy-terrorists and get a guided VIP tour (video). There he was quoted as praising Nasrallah for serving as an effective armed deterrent:
I think Nasrallah has a reasoned argument and persuasive argument that they [the arms] should be in the hands of Hezbollah as a deterrent to potential aggression. … I think his position … and it seems to me reasonable position, is that until there is a general political settlement in the region, the threat of aggression and violence is reduced or eliminated, there has to be a deterrent.
Nasrallah, Chomsky hero against Western aggression, has been bragging recently on television about the body parts of Israeli soldiers he’s been collecting and effectively holding hostage.
This all leads naturally to a discussion of that other Hezbollah admirer and Noam Chomsky disciple, Norman Finkelstein — until recently of DePaul University. Finkelstein is infamous for his anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli, and anti-American polemics. At the beginning of this year, he traveled to Lebanon to shore up Hezbollah morale:
After the horror and after the shame and after the anger there still remain a hope, and I know that I can get in a lot of trouble for what I am about to say, but I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope. They are fighting to defend their homeland.
Details. Don’t let the I know I can get in a lot of trouble for this business fool you. Finkelstein is quite familiar with chatting up Nasrallah’s goons and is always happy to provide a usable sound bite. In an infamous June ’06 appearance on Al-Manar TV — Hezbollah’s anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying house organ — Finkelstein’s interview discussing the misuse of the Holocaust (video) is wedged in with an Al-Manar introduction of pure Holocaust denial. Professor Finkelstein may not have known what Al-Manar was showing, but it was utterly predictable how his comments would be used. He simply didn’t care.
“Going native” is a common malady amongst area studies scholars who somewhere along the way cross that delicate dividing line between understanding and justification. Think of it as a byproduct of “access scholarship.” Access scholarship is the little cousin of that other unspoken and unacknowledged blot on plain and open reporting — access journalism. Recall the now infamous admission by former CNN official Eason Jordan to the effect that CNN had known about Saddam Hussein’s brutality for years but had intentionally remained silent for fear of jeopardizing the lives of CNN employees in Baghdad — oh, and also over the fear that Saddam might decide to shut down CNN’s Baghdad office.
Likewise, scholars whose fields of study involve territories controlled by brutal and repressive regimes face similar dilemmas. How might they be tempted to curb or slant their public writing or speaking in order to preserve their access — and their lives — and stay one step ahead of their academic rivals?
This latter case is replete with examples. Take, for starters, Harvard researcher Sara Roy. Roy is a Gaza Strip “expert” not averse, in good Hamas fashion, to using the occasion of “a Holocaust memorial lecture to suggest that Israelis are Nazis” and who ended up penning a review of another scholar’s work on Hamas that was rejected by a Tufts Fletcher School publication editor for being too biased toward the terror group:
Your review was evaluated by several of our editors and an external editor for objectivity. Unfortunately, they disagreed with my decision to publish your review for the following reasons: despite their agreement with many of your points, all reviewers found the piece one-sided. This one-sidedness dissuaded readers from reading the piece to the end.
Roy is a collaborator of Boston Univerity professor and Hezbollah scholar Augustus Richard Norton. In ’07 they co-wrote an op-ed to assure us, “Yes, you can work with Hamas.” Would we expect any other answer? After all, they do. Norton’s book on Hezbollah prompted one reviewer to lament:
Here we go again: yet another American “scholar” who apologizes for an Islamist terrorist group that exists first and foremost to murder, maim, and destroy. With Hezbollah: A Short History, Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University professor of international relations and anthropology, has joined the ranks of dozens of U.S. academics who inexplicably teach the kinder and gentler side of terrorists.
Dozens, indeed. After all, not every scholar has the personal wealth of a Chomsky, who’s grown rich teaching kids to hate their country. It makes far more sense to keep your politics subsidized and tax-deductible and often funded by the taxpayer by simply combining your politics and your scholarship directly. Why do freelance trips to Lebanon when you can get a university to pay? What better way to be edgy, to speak truth to power, to subvert the dominant paradigm — in short, to seem cool and interesting — than by intentionally conflating terror groups with social welfare organizations and, what’s better, often doing it on Uncle Sam’s dime?
Now, to be sure, not every scholar is an apologist for Islamist terrorists or Iranian madmen; it just feels that way sometimes. You’ll have to forgive us plebeians for believing plausible Iranian propaganda about visiting American scholars eager to curry favor and flagellate themselves on bended knee for the pleasure of a millennialist terror master. It’s just that sometimes the actual behavior of Western scholars is indistinguishable from cheap Iranian propaganda. In fact, sometimes it’s worse.
Martin Solomon is a Boston area blogger and small business owner. Solomon writes on a variety of topics on his blog, Solomonia.